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 in critical condition after a six-vehicle accident in New Jersey early Saturday, June 7, authorities said. 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 in critical condition after a six-vehicle accident in New Jersey early Saturday, June 7, authorities said. 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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT