Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Was Tracy Morgan crash a crime or accident?

By Danny Cevallos
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1607 GMT (0007 HKT)
Actor Tracy Morgan is still recovering from injuries suffered in a six-vehicle accident in New Jersey on June 7. The former "Saturday Night Live" cast member and "30 Rock" star was riding in a limo bus when the accident occurred. Actor Tracy Morgan is still recovering from injuries suffered in a six-vehicle accident in New Jersey on June 7. The former "Saturday Night Live" cast member and "30 Rock" star was riding in a limo bus when the accident occurred.
HIDE CAPTION
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
Tracy Morgan's comedy career
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Danny Cevallos: Trucker in Tracy Morgan crash charged with death by auto, assault by auto
  • In N.J. vehicular homicide from reckless driving
  • He says state must show conscious disregard of risk
  • Cevallos: Assault charge defines culpability based on severity of injuries

Editor's note: Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst, criminal defense attorney and partner at Cevallos & Wong, practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Truck driver Kevin Roper has been charged with death by auto and four counts of assault by auto in connection with the crash last weekend that killed comedian James McNair and injured comedian Tracy Morgan.

The question has arisen: Why was he charged with death by auto and aggravated assault before we even know how he was driving? In this sort of crash, what makes the difference between an accident and a crime?

Danny Cevallos
Danny Cevallos

The answers lie in the criminal code.

Homicide

Roper has been charged with "death by auto" in connection with the killing of James McNair. In New Jersey, homicide as a crime is divided into three different categories: murder, manslaughter and -- in a category by itself -- death by auto. Vehicular homicide is causing a death by driving a vehicle or vessel "recklessly."

There are two elements hidden in that definition. First, causation: The defendant has to have caused the death. It must be shown that the defendant caused the crash, the crash caused the death, and that the victim's death was foreseeable. The concept of recklessness, however, is a little more difficult to grasp. Recklessness and negligence are often spoken of together, but they are two very different points on a "mens rea" (state of mind) spectrum.

Criminal negligence is the least blameworthy state of mind. It's an "objective" standard, which means that we simply ask if an ordinary, reasonable person would have done the same act -- the act that created the risk in the first place. The prosecution doesn't have to prove that the defendant actually knew better, just that he should have known better.

Recklessness is totally different. Both the negligent person and the reckless person create a risk of bodily injury, but the reckless person does so in conscious disregard of that risk. So, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant's driving created a substantial and unjustifiable risk of bodily injury. With recklessness, the state must also prove that the defendant consciously disregarded this risk, which was a gross deviation from what a reasonable person would have done.

So how on earth does a prosecutor get into a defendant's brain to know what he was thinking at the moment of impact? The truth is that we never know for sure what a defendant actually thought -- unless, of course, the defendant tells us what he thought.

Driver: Tracy Morgan screamed in crash
Actor injured in multi-vehicle crash
Former 'SNL' star in intensive care

Often defendants give statements or admissions to the police that can be introduced against them in court. While it's true that hearsay (what the person told someone else) is supposed to be inadmissible, the admission of a criminal defendant is an exception to this rule. Of course, if a confession is obtained through compulsion or coercion, it is considered unreliable, and is inadmissible. But, as long as the state can prove conclusively that a confession was made voluntarily, it will be admissible.

But how often does a driver admit to police "I drove recklessly?" Not often. Therefore, the law also permits us to draw inferences about a person's state of mind, based just on their conduct. In fact, certain behavior is specifically considered reckless by the law. And that's where this defendant may find his words come back to haunt him -- even if he never uttered the words "reckless" to the police.

New Jersey's criminal code has this to say: "[p]roof that the defendant fell asleep while driving or was driving after having been without sleep for a period in excess of 24 consecutive hours may give rise to an inference that the defendant was driving recklessly."

The easiest way to find out a driver was dozing off is if he admits it. Since the defendant in this crash was alone, only he would be able to tell police if he was asleep. Even an offhand comment to investigators about "drifting off" would have dire consequences, because it all but establishes a major part of the case against him.

The 24-hour alternative could be proved with circumstantial evidence, such as records, communications, or even witness testimony. Either way, the state would have the burden of proving sleep. If the defendant admits to dozing off, he's saved the state the inconvenience of its burden. See why criminal defense attorneys are always begging clients to not try to talk their way out of trouble?

This kind of homicide is a second-degree offense, punishable by up to 10 years in state prison, and there is a presumption of incarceration. This means if he's convicted, he's probably going to prison.

Assault

Roper has also been charged with "assault by auto" in connection with the other injuries caused. Assault by auto also has the recklessness standard, but here the seriousness of injury also guides the degree of the crime charged. Assault by auto is a crime of the fourth degree if serious bodily injury results.

On the other hand, if only "bodily injury" results, it is only a disorderly persons offense. It's interesting that criminal statutes define culpability in part by the injuries suffered, but in this case, the "seriousness" of the bodily injury -- Tracy Morgan was left in critical condition, for example -- is apparent, which is why the state has charged Roper with a fourth-degree offense. This is punishable by up to 18 months in state prison.

Ultimately, for both assault and death by auto, the prosecution must prove reckless behavior beyond a reasonable doubt. If Roper made statements or admissions to the police about falling asleep at the wheel, those statements could dramatically alter the course of the prosecution against him, potentially conceding a major part of the state's case against him.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT