Reckless Driving Causing Death Held Not To Be Depraved Indifference Murder

Drew R. DuBrin,
Special Assistant Monroe County Public Defender

In People v Prindle (_NY3d_, 2011 NY Slip Op 01320 [2/22/11]) Mr. Prindle urged that the evidence of depraved indifference was insufficient to support his murder conviction, where a passenger of another car was killed when Prindle collided his van into the other car during a police chase.

Mr. Prindle, who was caught stealing snow plow blades in Brighton, a Rochester suburb, sped onto Monroe Avenue and headed toward Rochester, reaching a speed of 65 miles an hour, running a number of red lights, driving into the oncoming lane of traffic to pass slower vehicles, and weaving in and out of traffic. The fatal crash occurred at the I 490 overpass on South Goodman, where the defendant ran the two red lights and crashed into the other vehicle at the south end of the overpass. Importantly, Mr. Prindle never strayed from the road and did not come close to striking a pedestrian.

Because trial counsel did not object to the jury charge, which correctly instructed jury under the law as it existed at the time -- that depraved indifference is an objective set of circumstances not a culpable mental state (which is now the law), the Court assessed the sufficiency of the evidence under the old standard. Without much explanation, the Court held that viewing depraved indifference, under the previous Register standard, the evidence of depraved indifference is legally insufficient. The Court ruled that the defendant's conduct did not evince the rare evil that is now understood to be depraved indifference. The Court contrasted the defendant's conduct to that of the defendant's conduct in People v Gomez, in which depraved indifference was found where the defendant mowed down two children while driving at high speed on a side walk.

Thus, the Court of Appeals has now appeared to take the position that death caused by highly reckless driving on a the road is not, by itself, evil enough to reflect a depraved indifference to human life.

Given that depraved indifference is now considered a culpable mental state, it is questionable whether highly reckless driving on a roadway (not in a parking lot or sidewalk) by a drunk driver could be said to be depraved indifference either, under the notion that an intoxicated driver does not fully comprehend the consequences of his actions. See People v Vallencia.