Collateral Murder for Negligent Homeless Man

In the past, we’ve noted cases where the collateral death of a responder was charged as murder despite the fact that it bore no causal connection to any criminal act, as well as the tendency to charge individuals who engaged in negligent conduct with crimes based on terrible outcomes.  This case puts it all together.

From NBC News via Turley :

A case in Elizabeth, New Jersey is raising some difficult questions about the limits of liability for injuries to emergency personnel. Emilio Vasquez, 19, a homeless man from Guatemala, is charged with breaking in a home and starting a fire to stay warm. The fire got out of control and the fire department was called. Firefighter Gary Stephens was one of those responding, but was killed when a fire truck backed into him. Vasquez has been charged with his murder.

It is terrible that anyone dies, no less a firefighter in the performance of his duty to help others.  And the homeless man, Emilio Vasquez, did commit the crime of breaking into a home, even though it was abandoned.  But he didn’t intend to commit arson.  He intended to stay warm.  He certainly didn’t intend to harm anyone. 

The accident itself had an additional twist.

The truck was moving at less than 5 mph when the truck hit the 57-year-old Stephens. The truck is equipped with a sensor that alerts the driver about objects while backing up, but it’s unclear if noise from the nearby New Jersey Turnpike played a role, fire officials said.

It will likely never be clear why Gary Stephens didn’t hear the beeping of the truck backing up.  Horrible accidents happen. 

Whether Vasquez deserves punishment for his entry into an abandoned home, usually considered a matter of simple trespass, is one issue.  But here he’s charged with the murder of Firefighter Gary Stephens, which lacks any logical legal or policy basis.  It’s just a matter of a dead body and someone having to pay. 

Usually, I agree with Turley’s assessment of the situation, but this time we apparently have taken separate paths.  Turley writes”

It appears that this was not an intentional act of arson but a homeless person trying to keep warm. Serious criminal charges are clearly warranted but a murder charge seems excessive despite our collective sense of loss with Stephens’ death.

Why are “serious criminal charges” clearly warranted?  It’s unclear why Turley thinks so, though by using the word “clearly” it appears that he doesn’t feel it necessary to explain something so obvious.  It’s not, however, obvious to me.  Not at all. 

What serious crime did Vasquez commit?  Trying to keep warm?  Since when did trying to stay alive warrant serious charges?  When a person dies, we lose perspective.  Death is horrible.  But death does not inherently beget a crime, and a criminal.  Should we punish Vasquez severely, there will be no gain.  He meant to hurt no one by starting a fire to save himself from the cold.  And stupid is not a crime, lest we all deserve life in prison.

As for the causal connection between Vasquez’s fire and Stephen’s being run over by a firetruck, the fact that the truck was there to put out the fire started by Vasquez is as deep as it gets.  But this is what firefighters do.  Fires happen, and firefighters put them out.  Sometimes, firefighters are hurt in the process.  Sometimes, they are killed.  Usually, it relates directly to the fire.  Sometimes, as here, it’s just a freak accident.

Had this been an arson, the intentional act of setting a fire, and a firefighter was injured or killed attempting to put the fire out, it would be fully appropriate for the felony murder rule to kick in.  It would serve the theory of the rule, the policy basis for holding a person responsible for the death of another caused by the commission of an intentional felony.  No such purpose is served here.

As awful as the death of Gary Stephens may be, and there is no question that it is terrible when a person dies needlessly, that doesn’t mean a crime must be somehow created and charged.  And when the gymnastics needed to convert Emilio Vasquez’s effort to stay warm into a murder charge are stretched this far, all reason is lost. 

There is no murder here, and there is no basis to charge Vasquez with any “serious” crime.  A terrible, unfortunate death occurred, but sometimes that just happens.

2 comments on “Collateral Murder for Negligent Homeless Man

  1. SHG

    In the absence of additional facts (which could always be the case), I would have to assume that it’s felony murder based on a technical burglary.  Jersey has weird laws compared to NY, so it’s hard to say.  Of course, he intentionally started a fire, though it was not for the purpose of burning down the house, so who knows?  Maybe some reckless theory?

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