New York court weighs impact of intoxication on vehicular murder charges

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

New York's highest state court was recently asked to consider the controversial question of whether extreme intoxication can be a defense in cases involving certain vehicular crimes.

The case, which was heard recently by the New York Court of Appeals, stems from three separate convictions of drivers who were charged with second-degree murder for causing traffic fatalities while highly intoxicated.

Second-degree murder and extreme intoxication

Second-degree murder is defined in several different ways under New York law. One type of second-degree murder is defined by state law as causing the death of another person while demonstrating a "depraved indifference to human life" and "recklessly engaging in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person."

This definition was used to convict all three drivers of second-degree murder. However, the convictions have been appealed and were recently heard as a group before New York's highest court. At issue on appeal is whether the drivers were so intoxicated that they were incapable of forming the "depraved and indifferent" state of mind required for a second-degree murder conviction under state law.

Defense attorneys for the drivers argued that they were too intoxicated to understand their actions and the risks that they posed to others. As a result, they claimed, it was impossible for the drivers to be in a depraved and indifferent state of mind. Prosecutors, on the other hand, argued that the drivers knew their actions put other people's lives at risk, but that they simply disregarded that risk.

The case is highly controversial because, depending on the outcome, it could potentially create a situation in which it would be harder to convict highly intoxicated drivers of second-degree murder than those who are less intoxicated.

How BAC levels affect impaired driving charges in New York

Along with a number of other factors, the criminal penalties for drinking and driving in New York generally become more severe as a driver's blood alcohol content (BAC) rises.

Under New York law, drivers can face criminal charges for driving while ability impaired by alcohol (DWIA) at BAC levels as low as 0.05. While being charged with DWIA in New York is a serious matter, the penalties for conviction are typically less severe than for impaired driving offenses involving higher BAC levels, such as driving while intoxicated (DWI).

In New York, like other states, the "per se" DWI limit for most drivers is a BAC level of 0.08. This means that drivers in New York can automatically be considered too intoxicated to drive if their BAC levels are 0.08 or higher, even if there is no other evidence of impairment or intoxication. The BAC limit in New York is lower for commercial drivers and for drivers under the age of 21.

Even more serious still are charges for Aggravated DWI, which under New York law can apply to highly intoxicated drivers whose BAC levels measure 0.18 or higher. Drivers who cause accidents or injuries while driving under the influence of alcohol can also face additional charges, such as vehicular manslaughter or vehicular assault. In some cases, like the ones recently heard by the New York Court of Appeals, intoxicated drivers may even face murder charges if they are involved in a fatal crash.

Call a lawyer if charged with intoxicated driving

People facing criminal charges for DWI or other intoxicated driving offenses in New York should be sure to get in touch with a skilled criminal defense lawyer right away for help protecting their rights and defending against the charges.