Third party’s statement clearing DWI defendant ruled admissible at trial

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

In People v. Soto, the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, in a split decision, reversed the defendant's drunk-driving convictions and ordered a new trial, holding that the trial court improperly refused to allow the defendant to submit a key piece of evidence at trial-a written statement from a third party stating that she was actually the driver of the defendant's car when it collided with the parked car, and that the defendant was only a passenger.

Background of the case

The third party was a 19-year-old woman who had no prior criminal history and only a learner's permit. Approximately 11 days after the accident, she gave her statement to a defense investigator, who reduced it to writing. The third party reviewed the written statement, and signed it.

At trial, the woman refused to testify on Fifth Amendment grounds. A defense witness testified that he saw the defendant with a young woman at a diner approximately 15 minutes before the accident, that the woman agreed to drive the defendant home because he was intoxicated, and that he saw her drive off with the defendant as the passenger. Another eyewitness for the prosecution testified that the defendant was driving at the time of the accident.

Hearsay exception for statements against penal interest

New York law provides an exception permitting the introduction of hearsay statements that are made against the declarant's own penal interest . The proponent of such evidence must prove four factors:

  • The unavailability of the third party at trial because of death, absence from the court's jurisdiction, or refuses to testify on constitutional grounds.
  • Awareness by the third party, when the statement was made, that it was contrary to his or her penal interest.
  • Competent knowledge by the third party of the underlying facts.
  • Independent evidence corroborates the statement's trustworthiness and reliability.

The trial court's ruling

In the Soto case, the woman's statement admitted conduct that amounted to a traffic infraction for leaving the scene of an accident. Although the woman believed that the conduct might be illegal, she was uncertain. The trial court ruled that the statement inadmissible, stating "I do not believe that she, either at the time she made it or even immediately following, assuming that that's considered contemporaneous, was aware that her declarations could expose her to prosecution for a traffic offense." The jury convicted the defendant of aggravated driving while intoxicated and driving while intoxicated, and the trial court sentenced the defendant to concurrent terms of three years' probation, and a $1,000 fine.

The Appellate Division's ruling

The Appellate Division determined that all four factors for admissibility of the statement had been met. Even though the witness's apprehension about giving her statement to the investigator was, in part, based on a fear that her parents would learn of her involvement with the defendant, and that her exposure to criminal liability was relatively minor, the Appellate Division concluded that the statement was a declaration against penal interest and was sufficiently corroborated by independent evidence. The Appellate Division further held that the error was not harmless, as the excluded evidence was crucial to the defendant's case. The defendant testified that a woman was driving, not him. The statement would have made his testimony more believable, particularly where the woman voluntarily made the statement to clear the defendant of the charges at her own expense.

Individuals facing drunk-driving charges are strongly urged to seek the advice of a competent attorney experienced in such matters to ensure that their rights are protected.