People vs. Levy
Ford Levy was charged in court, and convicted of reckless driving and speeding. Levy appealed to the New York Supreme Appellate Court for a new trial. The defendant, Levy, was accused by the People for violating Penal Law § 120.20 and Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1212 and 1180) all of which do not allow reckless driving. Levy, while over-speeding allegedly rammed into another vehicle in the other lane (Samaha, 2000). During the trial, the defendant mentioned that a temporal lobe seizure was possibly the reason for the unsteady driving. Levy presented expert testimony that seizures rendered some of the defendant motor skills out of their own will. Hence, the defendant asked the jury to consider his guilt on the basis of whether his actions were voluntarily. The court refused to grant such a request, and the jury convicted Levy with the charges mentioned above. The case had been heard in the North Castle Justice Court in the 9th Judicial District. This was the first appeal being heard by a lower appellate court. A bench had been selected to review the court in the appeal court, and rule it after the request for the appeal had been granted.
The voluntary act rule was to be applied in the above case. This rule states criminal liability requires an individual to be fully conscious or aware of their actions when committing any form of criminal offense (Penal Law § 15.10). An individual is not considered guilty of an offense, unless it has been proved with certainty that the actions they engaged in can be regarded as a voluntary act, ‘performed consciously as a result of effort or determination’ (Samaha, 2000). There are several acts that have been classified as not being voluntary. They include convulsions or any form of reflex, bodily movement during sleep or unconsciousness, any activity conducted during hypnosis or resulting from hypnotic suggestion, or epileptic fugue (Samaha, 2000).
Criminal liability requires that a case be proved beyond reasonable doubt that a certain act was conducted with adequate knowledge, or was voluntary. The penal law goes further to define any voluntary act as any act that is performed by the body consciously, and is a product or result of the conscious effort or determination. Bodily movements that occur during unconsciousness, reflex actions, epileptic fugue, and hypnosis are not classified as, or subjected to criminal liability. Before considering if any form of criminal liability exists in any case, it is necessary that a court determine if any action was voluntary. In the above case, Levy indicated to the court that he indeed suffered from temporal lobe seizures. Proffered expert testimony confirmed that the defendant could ‘perform complex motor functions during a seizure, without any awareness of his actions both during and after each seizure’. Accordingly, it was possible that Levy could engage in some acts, while still in the unconscious state of mind.
Therefore, Levy argued that the accident that had occurred was not entirely based on a voluntary act, because of the nature of his condition (Samaha, 2000). The defendant asked the court to instruct the jury to consider the relevance of a voluntary act prior to deciding criminal liability, which was denied by the Justice Court judge. Additionally, the court also allowed the People to improperly amend some of the accusations during summation, asserting that the defendant was ‘reckless’ in his decision to drive despite prior knowledge of being epileptic. (Samaha, 2000).
Although the People limited the case’s theory to Levy’s ‘operation’ of the vehicle during the accident, through the use of the accusatory summation statement, criminal liability seemed relevant in the charges leveled against the defendant. Simultaneously, this alternative theory of liability limited the application of the voluntary act theory, since some form of voluntary activity was noted from the accused. Ideally, nobody stopped Levy from not driving the car, even though he understood that he had a condition that could render some of his motor activities unconscious. Considering the court had not appropriately charged the jury with the legal principles relevant to the case, the use of these statements could serve to prove the defendant guilty.
In summation, the People’s alternate theory of liability suggests that Levy indeed engaged in some form of reckless decision-making that resulted in collision with another individual’s car. If Levy was aware of his epileptic condition, and had a prior accident, then it was wrong for him to assume the responsibility of driving a car. However, considering the People argued the case on the theory of Levy’s reckless ‘operation’ of the vehicle, and not reckless ‘decision making’, allowing the alternate theory of liability during the summation was at variance to the argument and supporting evidence presented by the People. Simultaneously, the judge’s charge to the jury to consider a standard of ‘general reckless conduct’, further aggravated the misinterpretation, since the jury should have been instructed to consider the criminal liability in terms of a ‘voluntary act’.
The Epilepsy Foundation (Epilepsy Therapy Project) suggests criminal or civil liability may occur if an epileptic person drives ‘against medical advice, without a valid license, or without notifying the state department of motor vehicles of the medical condition, or with the knowledge that he or she is prohibited from driving.’ Since Levy had a valid license, and the expert testimony proffered by Levy was not considered by the judge, as well as the fact that the evidence presented does not clearly specify if the prior accident was a result of seizure, the theory of voluntary act is valid.
I agree with the court’s ruling to reverse the conviction. If a medical expert concedes that the defendant ‘could perform complex motor functions during a seizure, without any awareness of his actions both during and after each seizure’, despite having full knowledge of his condition, it is possible that Levy had been similarly advised after the earlier accident. Hence, since the expert testimony was not considered relevant to the charge, the line of questioning which could have possibly explored these options was denied to the jury. At the same time, Levy did not prove that the accident was unknowingly caused, since he drove a car knowing quite well that he suffered from a condition that affected his ability to control his motor skills. The jury made its decision based on the judge’s instructions, and the evidence and testimony considered admissible and valid. Since the conviction was a result of the jury’s decision, it is difficult to state if the verdict was correct, and hence, a new trial examining relevant evidence is the correct decision.
- No evidence was provided to show that indeed Levy’s cause of the accident was largely to do with epileptic seizures. If expert analysis had been provided, preferably by a medical doctor, then it was likely to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Levy was not the cause of the accident. In addition, no previous cases of such nature were mentioned in the case.
- Expert analysis is critical, since it is provided by a professional who has specialised in a specific field, and as a result, carries more weight for a juror.
- If Levy had a similar accident due to epileptic seizures, then it would have served to illustrate that indeed the seizures were largely due to the condition, and were likely to occur at any period. However, since expert testimony stated that the defendant performed complex motor functions and since epileptic blackout is not subject to criminal obligation, the question of ‘voluntary act’ remains. The defendant could have been similarly advised after the earlier accident about his ability to drive despite having an epileptic condition.
- The prosecutor’s argument has merits, since it attempts to show that Levy had prior knowledge about the possibility of causing ‘an unreasonable risk to public safety’. However, since by the accusatory instruments relating to the charges, the People limited the theory of the case to Levy’s reckless ‘operation’ of the vehicle, and not prior causative ‘decision-making’, the prosecutor failed to prove the merit of the argument.
Epilepsy Foundation, Driving and Transportation. Retrieved from http://www.epilepsy.com/get help/staying-safe/driving-and-transportation
Samaha, J. (2000). Criminal justice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.