Who would have thought that a New York City traffic regulation would end up the subject of a constitutional battle? But that’s what has happened in the Big Apple, where a Queens judge ruled that the one of the city’s “Vision Zero” traffic laws is unconstitutional.
The regulation at issue in the case, §19-190 of the New York City Administrative Code, provides additional penalties for failure to yield the right of way on city streets. One provision of the regulation says that if you fail to yield, and cause a physical injury to a pedestrian or a person riding a bicycle, you are guilty of a misdemeanor. At this point, you might wonder what the bid deal is about. After all, the law says only that it’s a misdemeanor to violate the traffic law and cause an injury.
Well, the Transport Workers Union of Greater New York, AFL-CIO sued the city. They raised a host of legal challenges to the law, saying that it is constitutionally vague, does not apprise people of the conduct that is prohibited, and violates due process. The thrust of the due process argument is that the city has taken the position that §19-190 imposes a rebuttable presumption of negligence in cases where a violation has been charged. This may sound like a bunch of unimportant legalese, but in fact the issue goes to the heart of our criminal justice system.
Imagine, if you will, being charged with a criminal offense, even a misdemeanor, and being told that you are presumed guilty, and that it’s your job to prove yourself innocent. That, in essence, is what the TWU says the city has tried to do with §19-190. The fact that it is a traffic law, and a misdemeanor, does not affect the result, or, for that matter, the importance of the case.
The United States Supreme Court decision of In re Winship says all you really need to know about the issue. That case involved a New York law providing that a determination of delinquency for minors could be made based upon a “preponderance of the evidence.” The New York Court of Appeals upheld the determination of delinquency, and the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The court reiterated the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be convicted of any criminal charge, and noted that a defendant is entitled to a presumption of innocence when facing any criminal charge.
We hear that the city is considering appeal the ruling, so there may be more to come on this issue.
George Vomvolakis Law Offices
275 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016