Alain Robert and Renaldo Clarke are not the first and probably not the last people to scale a large building or historical landmark in New York. Nor are they the first people to need the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney to get them out of a serious predicament in Manhattan. In fact, not too long ago, Jebb Corliss attempted to leap from Empire State Building. From a personal standpoint, climbing buildings and BASE jumping is certainly an intimidating (dare I say crazy?) proposition, but from a legal standpoint, what, if any, crimes are committed in New York State when an individual is arrested for these acts? If recent history is any indication, the most serious offense that prosecutors try to pursue is the charge of Reckless Endangerment.
Penal Law ､ 120.25, Reckless Endangerment in the First Degree, is a felony punishable by up to seven years in state prison. A person is guilty of Reckless Endangerment in the First Degree when, under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person. A person is guilty of Reckless Endangerment in the Second Degree, Penal Law ､ 120.20, when he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person. So, the question is simple (or maybe not!)….Did these stunts fall into the terms of either statute?
On March 4, 2008, the First Department answered this question when the Court reviewed the dismissal of an indictment filed against Corliss where he was charged with Reckless Endangerment in the First Degree for attempting to parachute from the Empire State Building. In ultimately determining that the indictment should not be dismissed in its entirety and the prosecution could proceed with the charge of Reckless Endangerment in the Second Degree, the First Department followed the Court of Appeals Decision in People v. Feingold. The Court found that for the First Degree charge to stand there must be “an utter disregard for the value of human life – a willingness to act not because one intends harm, but because one simply doesn’t care whether grievous harm results or not.”
In finding that Corliss’ actions were within the realm Reckless Endangerment in the Second Degree the Court further stated:
“Climbing over the security fence, to a position where, according to one security guard, he appeared ready to jump off the building, in itself put many people at risk. Not only were 30-to-40 mile per hour winds gusting out of the north, making mishaps more likely, but even an accidental misstep, or a hand or object reaching through the security fence and accidentally pushing, rather than grabbing him, could have sent defendant into the air, where a faulty parachute would result in a likelihood of death not only for defendant but for people on the ground. Even a properly functioning parachute that landed a jumper safely might cause a variety of accidents. There were also risks that an object carried by or attached to defendant, or an object deployed through the fence by security guards to prevent defendant from jumping, could accidentally fall, and any such object would become a lethal projectile along the way. Additionally, the actions defendant took created a risk of serious physical injury to building security staff whose job it was to try to stop him from making the jump, and even bystanders in the vicinity were endangered by the ensuing struggle.”
Although Corliss’ actions were somewhat different than that of Robert or Clarke, it appears that future climbers and jumpers may make it safely off their respective buildings, but the justice system may pose an entirely new danger. Whether they parachute down to the street or are escorted by the police, a potential misdemeanor charge or greater may be their prize.