New York Auto Sale Goes Nuclear (and the Fallout), Part 2

August 26, 2011

“and its devastation…” Homer, The Iliad

As reported in our last entry, a car belonging to our client, Mr. X, had been snatched and then totaled by Mr. Y, a (former) friend. There was no insurance on the car, and the registration had been suspended.

In the next couple of entries we’ll look at the consequences of this brief interval of madness, addressing Mr. Y’s situation first, then Mr. X’s.

Mr. Y, as you might guess, had no reason to be pleased with himself or his situation immediately following the accident. On a personal level, he’d completely burned his bridges with Mr. X. Civilly, he was liable to Mr. X for destroying his property.

And, of course, flipping a car on a public thoroughfare is likely to attract attention, and this accident was no exception. The police arrived before long and began to look into it. Once a police investigation was under way, the legal and administrative consequences started to mount up fast.

What were Mr. Y’s potential problems, from the point of view of law enforcement - what was his ‘exposure’?

To begin with, Mr. Y had no business driving the car at all. There’s not much evidence he intended to steal it, (theft of an automobile worth more than $100 is grand larceny, which can mean state prison). Mr. Y might, however, have been charged with unauthorized use of a vehicle (although he wasn’t). “Unauthorized use” is a class A misdemeanor, which can cost a year in the county jail.

It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Y flipped a car without driving in a way that “unreasonably endanger[ed] users of the public highway.” That would be reckless driving, which is a misdemeanor: it can, but doesn’t always, lead to jail time and license revocation. But he wasn’t charged with reckless driving either. He was charged merely with driving “at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent,” and with “failure to keep right,” both three-point traffic infractions.

He was also ticketed for an equipment violation (bald tires), for driving an unregistered vehicle, and for driving a vehicle with a suspended registration.

Driving an unregistered vehicle is a traffic infraction. It doesn’t require that you know the vehicle’s not registered. That would defeat the law’s purpose, in fact; many, if not most, of the drivers ticketed for it have just forgotten to renew the registration. In short, it’s no defense to say that you honestly thought the thing was registered.

Driving a vehicle with a suspended registration should be a different proposition. As we discussed in a prior entry, driving a vehicle with a suspended registration is a misdemeanor. Yet you can apparently commit this misdemeanor - this crime - without knowing you’re doing anything wrong; the language of the statute is pretty clear.

The practice commentary to the statute in McKinney’s Consolidated Laws of New York, an official compilation of state law, suggests that a prosecutor would have to prove a knowing violation. That’s a comforting thought, and just by stating it, the commentary goes some way toward making it true: courts consider McKinney’s commentaries persuasive authority.

The commentary isn’t binding on any court, however, and the one case addressing the statute head-on, a case called People v. Krenzer, is not in any way reassuring. All a prosecutor needs to show, according to Krenzer, is (1) the vehicle had a suspended registration and (2) the defendant drove it.

The question is moot anyway, when it comes to Mr. Y. With or without the implied element of knowledge, he would be on the hook.

Finally, Mr. Y was charged with driving a vehicle without insurance. He most definitely did this - and did it knowingly. It’s a traffic infraction, but carries extremely heavy penalties. These can include a $1,500 fine (not to mention 15 days in jail), plus a $750 civil penalty. Driving without insurance also leads to revocation of the driver’s license for a year.

Ironically, unlike the criminal offense of driving on a suspended registration (which carries a relatively small fine), the consequences (admittedly heavy) of this mere infraction may be avoided by showing that you didn’t knowingly commit it. If you didn’t know there was no insurance, make your pitch to DMV. Remember, though, the burden is on you to prove it.

And it would be wise to keep all this in mind - potential criminal exposure and/or crushing financial financial and licensing penalties - any time you borrow a friend’s car.

Next time: What about Mr. X?

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