Court holds that People offered insufficient evidence to support VTL failing to obey a traffic control device conviction

Traffic Infractions and Vehicle and Traffic Law Violations bear serious consequences in New York State. This case comes by way of “[a]ppeal from eight judgments of the City Court of Rye, Westchester County…The judgments convicted defendant, after a nonjury trial, of three charges of failing to obey a traffic control device, three charges of failing to signal before turning, operating an unregistered motor vehicle, and failing to wear a seatbelt while operating a motor vehicle, respectively.” The defendant contends that the “City Court failed to provide findings of fact to support its decision as required by CPLR 4213 (b) or, in the alternative, remit the matter for a new trial.” The Court disagrees but reviews the evidence based on its discretion and the interests of justice.

So what happened here: a New York State motorist was pulled over and received eight (8) eight simplified traffic informations charging the motorist with failing to obey a traffic control device (Vehicle and Traffic Law §1110 [a]) by traveling in excess of the posted speed limit (three charges), failing to signal before turning (Vehicle and Traffic Law §1163 [d]) (three charges), operating an unregistered motor vehicle (Vehicle and Traffic Law §401 [1]), and failing to wear a seatbelt while operating a motor vehicle (Vehicle and Traffic Law §1229-c [3]). He goes to trial and the judge convicts the motorist of all of the above mentioned charges. Not a unique situation.

What is unique is the Court reviewing the case and finding that evidence was legally insufficient to establish the motorists’ guilt of all of these violations:

We find that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the People (see People v. Contes, 60 NY2d 620, 621 [1983]), was legally insufficient to establish defendant’s guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the three charges of failing to obey a traffic control device. Vehicle and Traffic Law §1110 (a) requires that “every person shall obey the instructions of any official traffic-control device,” which includes a speed limit sign (Vehicle and Traffic Law §153). At the trial, a police officer merely testified that there are signs posting a maximum 30 miles per hour speed limit at the entrance to the City of Rye, or along the border of Rye by Mamaroneck and Harrision, without any further elaboration.

The holding of the Court is substantial for those who regularly handle New York Vehicle and Traffic violations insofar as it set out the requirements of the People in proving a failure to obey a traffic control device violation:

In a case of failing to obey a traffic control device, such as the one before us, even if the traffic control device is a sign setting forth a maximum speed of [30] miles per hour, the People must establish that defendant had notice of the sign, generally, by testimony as to the location, description, and observability of the sign alleged to have been disobeyed (see People v. Cooper, 112 Misc 2d 277, 280 [Town of Rhinebeck Justice Court 1981]; Joseph R. Carrieri, Practice Commentaries, McKinney’s Cons Laws of NY, Book 62A, Vehicle and Traffic Law §1110) and that the sign substantially complied with the statutory requirements (see People v. Guthrie, 25 NY3d [130,] 140 [2015]; People v. Lathrop, 3 NY2d at 553). Merely categorizing the device disobeyed is insufficient.”

Further, “[t]he sole evidence presented at trial to establish that defendant was operating an unregistered motor vehicle was the police officer’s testimony that she had called defendant’s license plate number into headquarters and had been informed that the vehicle’s registration had expired. Such unsubstantiated hearsay testimony was legally insufficient to establish defendant’s guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, of operating an unregistered vehicle.”

The Court concludes that “the three judgments convicting defendant of failing to signal before turning and the judgment convicting defendant of failing to wear a seatbelt while operating a motor vehicle are affirmed, and the three judgments convicting defendant of failing to obey a traffic control device and the judgment convicting defendant of operating an unregistered motor vehicle are reversed, and the accusatory instruments charging those offenses are dismissed.” Pp. 5

The case is The People v. Chittenden, 2014-405 W CR, NYLJ 1202766138564, at *1 (App. Tm., 2nd, Decided August 1, 2016)

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