In a case of first impression decided just after Thanksgiving, the N.J. Appellate Division held that contact between a driver’s vehicle and a pedestrian is not a necessary element of the second-degree crime of leaving the scene of an accident.
The facts of the case are fairly straightforward. Four years ago, a jitney bus ran over and killed a pedestrian who was crossing Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City. Immediately after the accident, the jitney driver stopped his vehicle and called the police to the scene. Police obtain surveillance videos from surrounding businesses as well as the video from the jitney’s dashboard camera, which had recorded the accident. The footage allowed police to determine that a taxi had either struck the pedestrian first, causing her to fall backwards, or that the pedestrian had stepped back into the road without having been struck by the taxicab.
According to his testimony, the taxi driver had observed the pedestrian in the roadway and abruptly stopped his vehicle. He then saw the victim fall and get run over by the jitney. After the accident, the cab driver drove around the block and parked. He then walked back to the accident scene, never giving a statement to the police or speaking to anyone there.
Under our New Jersey criminal statute, if a motorist knows that he has been “involved in an accident” and knowingly leaves the scene, he is guilty of a crime of the second degree if the accident results in the death of another person. The issue in the case (State v. Sene) was whether the phrase “involved in an accident” meant that contact must have occurred between the taxi driver’s vehicle and the victim before the driver could be found guilty of the crime.
Relying on the plain meaning of the words “involve” and “accident” as defined by Merriam-Webster, the Appellate panel concluded that the statute did not require contact between a vehicle and the victim for a crime to occur. It stated, “The plain reading of those words means that a driver whose actions contribute to an accident, and who knows of the causal relationship, must not leave the scene of the accident.” The Court took note of the distinction between the use of the word ‘involve’ in the criminal statute and its use of the word ‘collide’ in civil motor vehicle laws, stating that the distinction was purposeful and evidenced the Legislature’s intention to criminalize leaving the scene where an accident results in a fatality.
In this case, the taxi driver’s observation of the aftermath of the accident and decision to leave the scene despite such knowledge is what made him responsible for the crime with which he had been charged. Under the facts presented, the Court found that a reasonable person would have known that he had been involved in an accident.
Linda Kern is a Randolph resident who is in private practice in Morristown. She is admitted to the New York and New Jersey bars and has litigated in both state and federal courts.
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