People v Decina Case Brief

In People v Decina, Prosecutors appeal a judgment of the Appellate Decision of the Supreme Court of the State of New York overturning a conviction in the Supreme Court for violation of N.Y. Penal Law § 1053-a. At issue is whether a car wreck caused by a seizure was a voluntary act, given that the defendant recognized the signs of an impending seizure before the crash.

Jurisdiction and Citation

Court of Appeals of New York
138 N.E.2d 799 (1956)

People v Decina Case Brief

Defendant Decina suffered an epileptic seizure at the time he was driving at high rate of speed on a busy New York street. Decina’s vehicle jumped the curb, striking four children and killing them. He was charged with criminal negligence while operating a motor vehicle that resulted in death, which is a violation of N.Y. Penal Law § 1053-a. After he was convicted in the Supreme Court, Decina appealed to the Supreme Court Appellate Division where his conviction was overturned, arguing that (1) a seizure was an involuntary act, and the case should have been dismissed since criminal negligence requires a voluntary act, and (2) that statements Decina made to a physician regarding his history of seizures was inadmissible. The Appellate Division denied the first argument but granted a new trial on the second point. Both parties appealed to the New York Court of Appeals.

Legal Issues

Is a seizure a voluntary act that constitutes the actus reus of a crime if the defendant ignored the risks of a potential seizure while driving?

Can a physician testify regarding statements made by a defendant who was given no reason to believe the statements were not confidential?


A defendant can be held criminally responsible for an involuntary act such as a seizure if they took an action such as operating a motor vehicle knowing the risks a potential seizure carries while behind the wheel. The case reversed and remanded for a new trial, as testimony from attending physician regarding Decina’s statements about his medical condition were privileged.


There are two important rules of law to take away from People v Decina, with one being decided in the Defendant’s favor while the other going against him. First, the Court of Appeals rejected Decina’s argument that he could not be found criminally negligent for an involuntary act such as an epileptic seizure. While it is well-settled that the actus reus of a crime must include a voluntary act, the New York Court of Appeals was careful to draw a distinction in this case. According to the court, the voluntary act in this case was not the seizure itself, but Decina’s disregard for the potential consequences of operating a motor vehicle despite knowing the risks of a crash should a seizure occur. It was the disregard for those risks that constituted criminal culpability.

However, in the end the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the reversal of the Appellate Division on the second issue. While the state argued that Decina’s discussion of his history of epileptic seizures was not directly related to his treatment after the accident and therefore not protected, the Court of Appeals disagreed. In their ruling, the Court of Appeals ruled that there was nothing about the conversation with the physician that would have led Decina to believe the communication was not confidential. The Court of Appeals ruled the physician’s tesimony regarding confidential communications violated doctor-patient confidentiality. Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case for a new trial.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

Actus Reus – An actual action that is a fundamental component of a crime, as compared with the perpetrator’s state of mind or intent.