Experienced New York traffic ticket lawyers know that generally, there are two possible defenses when one is charged with speeding in New York: (1) “I wasn’t speeding”; or (2) “I was speeding but I have an excuse”. (Keep in mind however, there is a third strategy which is not a defense and that is, “I was speeding but the officer can’t prove it”. The “they can’t prove it” strategy will be the subject of future blogs).
With regard to excuses, motorists issued speeding tickets come up with any number of excuses to justify why they were exceeding the speed limit. Generally, unless you have a verifiable pregnant woman in the car or an assailant with a gun to your head, you have no legal excuse. However, at least one court has held that exceeding the speed limit to avoid a suddenly slowing vehicle constitutes a sufficient “emergency” to absolve the motorist of a speeding charge.
In People v. Cataldo, 65 Misc.2d 286, 316 N.Y.S.2d 873, a 1970 case out of the Suffolk County First District Court, J. Colaneri found a motorist not guilty of speeding where the evidence showed that the motorist accelerated to avoid a vehicle that was “rapidly slowing down”. In so ruling, J. Colaneri relied upon the “emergency” justification defense found in Penal Law sec. 35.05(2) which states, in sum and substance, that criminal conduct in not criminal when it is necessary to avoid a public or private injury which is about to occur through no fault of the actor (i.e. the defendant did not cause the emergency situation). In Cataldo, J. Coleneri found that the defendant/motorist was justified in speeding to avoid colliding with the “rapidly slowing” vehicle.
As a defense attorney I love to see defendants win their cases. I love to see judges apply the law as it is written and follow the rules of evidence instead of simply operating as an extension of the prosecution. But even I have some doubts as to the reasoning behind the Cataldo decision. Clearly if the defendant needed to accelerate to avoid a “rapidly slowing” vehicle, the defendant was following too closely and further, was traveling at an imprudent speed. Therefore, the defendant in Cataldo was not entitled to the protections of the emergency defense because he created the emergency situation by tailgating and speeding.