While there is likely a significant amount of investigation that has yet to occur, the sad reality is that many innocent people were terribly injured and died when a Metro North train from Poughkeepsie skid, rolled and tumbled off the tracks near the Hudson Line’s Spuyten Duyvil station in The Bronx. With Engineer William Rockefeller at the helm of the train allegedly barreling over 80 mph in a 30 mph zone, reports indicate that the Mr. Rockefeller applied to brakes too late causing the death and devastation. Although much more information is needed to fully understand what transpired in the Bronx, and I am not aware of whether or not Rockefeller had alcohol or drugs (prescription or otherwise) in his system, Rockefeller may be in for a long drawn out legal battle not just from those who may pursue civil suits against him and the MTA, but from a potential arrest and indictment by the Bronx County District Attorneys Office.
Before proceeding, it should be very clear that I have no information beyond what is provided through local media outlets. Further, in no way am I insinuating Rockefeller is guilty of any crime. Fortunately, every individual has the presumption of innocence – not guilt – on his or her side. Having said that, if a prosecution is brought against Rockefeller and the Bronx District Attorney seeks an indictment, what are the potential criminal charges?
Manslaughter in the Second Degree, a crime that carries a potential sentence of up to fifteen years in prison, is likely one of the top possible crimes Rockefeller could face. Because Rockefeller did not intentionally kill those passengers on the train he engineered, a different crime involving a reckless or negligent “mental state” is more applicable. One is guilty of New York Penal Law 125.15(1) if and when that person recklessly causes the death of another person. According to New York State law, someone is legally reckless with respect the death of another person “when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur [death] or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.” It is important to recognize that if Rockefeller was voluntarily intoxicated he is not protected from any alleged recklessness.
In this scenario above, was Rockefeller intoxicated in some way (by choice) when took control of a multi-ton speeding train? Was there a substantial (not merely possible) risk that the train could go off the track and cause these deaths? Did Rockefeller actually make a conscious decision to ignore the risk when the speed limit dropped to 30 mph, or was he truly in some kind of daze involuntarily or medically? Even if there was this substantial risk, was his conduct such a significant or gross deviation from what a reasonable person – an engineer on that line – would do while engineering and driving the train? Again, as noted above, these issues and possible evidence needs further investigation and clarification even if it seems to a non-criminal attorney that Rockefeller’s criminal culpability is obcious.
A lesser crime, but with similar elements is Criminally Negligent Homicide pursuant to New York Penal Law 125.10. A person is guilty of Criminally Negligent Homicide if and when that person, with criminal negligence, causes the death of another person. Not as serious an offense as Manslaughter, if found guilty of this crime Rockefeller would face up to four years in prison. Just as the New York Penal Law defines the reckless mental state, it also defines criminally negligent. According to New York Penal Law 15.05(4), “a person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”
Fortunately, despite the horrendous injuries to some of the passengers, many riders survived the terrible crash. Their survival does not spare Rockefeller from facing other crimes. Although not likely, could prosecutors charge Rockefeller with Second Degree Assault pursuant to New York Penal Law 120.05(4)? There, he would be guilty of a felony with up to seven years of incarceration if he recklessly caused serious physical injury to a passenger by means of a dangerous instrument. First, serious physical injury is of the type and nature that leads to disfigurement, loss of a bodily function or long term health problems. Certainly, paralysis would fall into this category. Further, a dangerous instrument is any object that under the circumstances in which it is used, attempted to be used or threatened to be used, is readily capable of causing death or other serious physical injury. There is little doubt, if there ever was, that a train speeding well in excess of the limit can be construed or used as a weapon. Having said that, is a speeding train with no other factors, what the prosecutors and the courts would call a weapon-like dangerous instrument?
What is also possible is that Rockefeller could face First Degree Reckless Endangerment as set forth in New York Penal Law 120.25. 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. This conduct would be Rockefeller’s speeding at 80 mph (as alleged) around a curve designated for speeds at 30 mph. The real issue with this offense is did Rockefeller truly exhibit a depraved indifference to human life? Negligent? Certainly a possibility. Stupid? Again, it may be likely? Depraved? Not only is the standard higher, but it opens the door to more serious offenses (not listed here) as well.
The above is merely a brief outline of a few of the possible crimes Rockefeller may face if he was voluntarily intoxicated, popped pills, consumed alcohol, was texting or was merely disregarding his clear duty and responsibility as a train engineer. In no way is this a full review of all possible crimes and potential evidence. Questions that will likely be raised over time will include what, if any, training did Rockefeller have in regard to the Spuyten Duyvil curve? Was there ample notice of the dangers and was Rockefeller advised? What will we learn about his phone and any type of intoxication?
Again, I have not information beyond what is being reported by local news and have no insight into any secret evidence. Until and only if there is a criminal conviction is Rockefeller guilty of any crime. As hard is it may be to remember he is innocent until proven guilty, it is the foundation of our criminal justice system. Even if he is, it is unlikely he and the MTA will avoid the tidal wave of civil actions.
Hopefully with time, the wounds of the passengers and their families will heal. I know all of us prey and wish for full recoveries and closure for the victims and their families when they are ready and capable of embracing it.
To learn more about the New York Penal Law, review this blog and New-York-Lawyers.org. Saland Law PC is a New York criminal defense firm located in lower Manhattan. Established by two former Manhattan prosecutors, our New York criminal lawyers represent clients throughout the New York City region.