36 N.Y.2d 269 (1975)

In the Matter of Richard Rosenthal, Respondent, v. "John" Hartnett, as Hearing Officer of the Administrative Adjudication Bureau of the City of New York, et al., Appellants.

Court of Appeals of the State of New York.

Decided March 24, 1975.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Louis J. Lefkowitz, Attorney-General (Robert S. Hammer and Samuel A. Hirshowitz of counsel), for appellants.

Joseph Chase for respondent.

Chief Judge BREITEL and Judges JASEN and GABRIELLI concur with Judge JONES; Judge WACHTLER dissents and votes to affirm in a separate opinion in which Judge COOKE concurs; Judge FUCHSBERG dissents in part and votes to modify in another opinion.


The real question on this appeal is whether the Legislature may constitutionally authorize administrative rather than judicial adjudication of traffic infractions and as an incident thereto establish "clear and convincing evidence" as the required quantum of proof for a determination of guilt where such determination may result in the imposition of a fine but not imprisonment. We conclude that it may do so.

By chapter 1074 of the Laws of 1969 the Legislature enacted article 2-A of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, authorizing administrative adjudication of traffic infractions in cities of over one million population.* An explicit restriction was imposed that "no penalty * * * shall include imprisonment" (§ 227, subd. 3). The Legislature also discontinued treating such infractions as misdemeanors for procedural purposes (Vehicle and Traffic Law, § 155; L. 1969, ch. 1075, § 1).

Subdivision 1 of section 227 of the new article 2-A, the foreground target in the present proceeding, provides: "The burden of proof shall be upon the people, and no charge may be established except by clear and convincing evidence".

Petitioner here was found guilty of speeding (Vehicle and Traffic Law, § 1180, subd. [a]) before a Department of Motor Vehicles hearing officer sitting pursuant to the provisions of article 2-A and a fine of $15 was imposed. The determination of the hearing officer was affirmed on administrative review under section 228 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law by the Appeals Board of the Administrative Adjudication Bureau of the City of New York. Petitioner then instituted the present article 78 (CPLR) proceeding. Special Term annulled the administrative determination on the ground that petitioner was unconstitutionally denied due process of law in that the quantum of proof required for the determination of his guilt was only "clear and convincing evidence" rather than "beyond a reasonable doubt" (71 Misc.2d 264, 265). Respondents appeal directly to our court as a matter of right, on constitutional grounds, pursuant to CPLR 5601 (subd. [b], par. 2).

Although petitioner would focus his claims of unconstitutionality on the quantum-of-proof provision of section 227 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, the issue before us should be framed more broadly. The correct perspective in which to review petitioner's position and to adjudge his rights is consideration of the constitutionality of the substitution in the adjudication of traffic infractions of an administrative agency and administrative procedures for courts of criminal jurisdiction and judicial procedures. If such substitution is permissible where conviction can result only in the imposition of fines with no imprisonment, in our view that conclusion carries with it recognition of the propriety of the use of the procedural apparatus of administrative proceedings, including specifically here an administrative rather than a judicial standard of proof.

In our view the transfer of cognizance of traffic infractions to the jurisdiction of an administrative agency was clearly authorized. The volume of traffic on our highways and the congestion in our criminal courts are both facts of such magnitude today as to require no demonstration. The legislative declaration which accompanied the 1969 enactment is pointed: "Statement of findings and purpose. The legislature hereby finds that the incidence of crime in the larger cities of this state has placed an overwhelming burden upon the criminal courts thereof. This burden, when coupled with the responsibility for adjudicating such non-criminal offenses as traffic infractions, has resulted in a situation in which the prompt and judicious handling of cases becomes virtually impossible. Despite the efforts of all concerned, this situation has often resulted in the lengthy incarceration of defendants before trial, and the inability to grant a trial date for periods of up to one year, and longer. Because the injustices resulting from the present system cannot be corrected unless the workload of the criminal courts is substantially reduced, the legislature finds that it is necessary and desirable to establish a system for the administrative adjudication of traffic infractions in cities having a population of one million or more. Such a system will not only contribute to the more judicious disposition of criminal matters, by reducing the overwhelming workload of the criminal courts, but will also provide for the speedy and equitable disposition of charges which allege moving traffic violations." (L. 1969, ch. 1074, § 1.)

The wisdom of legislative enactment is a matter for the determination of the Legislature and not the courts (Matter of Gormeley v. New York Daily News, 30 A.D.2d 16, 20, affd. 24 N.Y.2d 867; see 9 N. Y. Jur., Constitutional Law, § 295). And the Legislature is presumed to have investigated the need for the particular legislation (Matter of Van Berkel v. Power, 16 N.Y.2d 37, 40).

Judicial inquiry is not, of course, thereby foreclosed as to the constitutionality of any individual enactment, although strong presumptions of constitutionality attach to any action of the Legislature. (People v. Pagnotta, 25 N.Y.2d 333, 337; Matter of Van Berkel v. Power, supra.)

We conclude that there is no substance to petitioner's contention that he was denied due process of law in the use of the "clear and convincing evidence" standard of proof in the administrative adjudication of his speeding infraction. Civil fines and penalties are routinely imposed by administrative action where the predicate therefor has been found on lesser standards than guilt beyond a reasonable doubt (Matter of Old Republic Life Ins. Co. v. Thacher, 12 N.Y.2d 48, 56; Matter of London Sporting Club v. Helfand, 3 Misc.2d 431, 436-437, affd. 6 A.D.2d 775; cf. Alcoholic Beverage Control Law, § 112). In administrative proceedings with respect to the discipline of public employees, an area of much greater potential deprivation to the individual than traffic infractions, the statute provides only that "[t]he burden of proving incompetency or misconduct shall be upon the person alleging the same" (Civil Service Law, § 75, subd. 2). Standards of proof are derived from the criteria which are applied on review of the administrative determinations — "substantial evidence" to support a finding of guilt; "arbitrary and capricious" to set aside the imposition of penalties (Matter of Pell v. Board of Educ., 34 N.Y.2d 222).

There was no constitutional infirmity in the transfer of cognizance of traffic infractions to an administrative agency. Nor was there any denial of due process when, as an appropriate incident thereto, "clear and convincing evidence" was fixed as the standard of proof for determinations which could not result in imprisonment.

Supreme Court did not reach petitioner's claim that he was denied equal protection of the law. There is no substance, however, to such a contention. Equal protection does not require territorial uniformity of law within a State (Salsburg v. Maryland, 346 U.S. 545 [rules of evidence in prosecutions for gambling offenses]; Missouri v. Lewis, 101 U.S. 22 [access to appellate courts]). We have upheld the constitutionality of a law which limited jury trial in New York City to crimes punishable by more than one year in prison, while those persons outside New York City received jury trials when charged with misdemeanors (Matter of Hogan v. Rosenberg, 24 N.Y.2d 207, revd. on other grounds sub nom. Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66; cf. People v. Felberbaum, 9 N.Y.2d 213, 215.)

The order and judgment of Supreme Court should accordingly be reversed, the administrative determination of petitioner's guilt and the imposition of the fine be reinstated, and the article 78 proceeding be dismissed.

WACHTLER, J. (dissenting).

I dissent and vote to affirm. In light of the importance of the privilege to drive (Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535), our court has consistently recognized the quasi criminal nature of traffic law enforcement and has generally held that such prosecutions are governed by the rules of the criminal law (People v. Phinney, 22 N.Y.2d 288, 290; People v. Firth, 3 N.Y.2d 472, 474). Indeed, in People v. Hildebrandt (308 N.Y. 397, 400) we noted the necessity of establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Here, appellants seek to justify the challenged statute which lowers the burden of proof to "clear and convincing" by raising the shibboleth of administrative efficiency. While revising procedures to enable more efficient processing may be a legitimate legislative concern, this statute does not bear a rational relationship to a legitimate purpose. Merely changing the quantum of proof does not promote efficiency nor reduce the case load. Accordingly, I consider this statute an unconstitutional impairment of the petitioner's due process rights.

FUCHSBERG, J. (dissenting).

The question here, I think, is not whether a statute establishing an administrative method of adjudicating traffic violations is valid. Providing the essentials of due process are maintained, I agree it can be. The issue, as I see it, is a much narrower one. May the fundamental requirement for proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt be discarded as a pure "incident" to such an enactment, even though its discard contributes nothing at all to the speed, economy, efficiency or other boons adjudication tribunals are to bring?

It is undisputed that, until the enactment of the legislation here found unconstitutional by our State Supreme Court, traffic law violators were accorded the safeguards generally applicable to criminal proceedings. (People v. Phinney, 22 N.Y.2d 288, 290; People v. Firth, 3 N.Y.2d 472; cf. Penal Law, § 10.00, subd. 2.)

Surely, among the dearest of such safeguards, on a level with the presumption of innocence, is the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. (See People v. Hildebrandt, 308 N.Y. 397, 400.) The United States Supreme Court explicitly removed "any doubt about the constitutional stature of the reasonable-doubt standard". (In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364.)

It is not denied that we have the right, indeed the duty, to examine the constitutionality of legislation which would shelve so important a right. One of the standards all legislation must meet is that of rationality. Purposeless legislation can be oppressive legislation. It is not crucial that we agree with the wisdom of a statutory provision, or with its necessity, or that we think the result it seeks is desirable, or even that we regard the means it would employ as the best ones to accomplish that result; but the existence of a rational connection between the part of the statute under consideration and what it is designed to accomplish is a sine qua non of due process. (Defiance Milk Prods. Co. v. Du Mond, 309 N.Y. 537.)

The portion of the statute under attack here does not meet that test. Not even time saving can be claimed for it. It takes no longer for an adjudicator or a Judge, as the case may be, to use the measuring rod of "beyond a reasonable doubt" rather than that of "clear and convincing proof". Whichever of these standards is employed, the proof presented would no doubt be identical. (Force, Administrative Adjudication of Traffic Violations Confronts the Doctrine of Separation of Powers, 49 Tulane L. Rev. 85, 125.) Nor has anyone as much as suggested that motorists with a penchant or compulsion to speed will be a whit more inclined to do so because a less stringent criterion for guilt is introduced.

The use of one standard rather than another is not a mere matter of ceremony or of semantics. We live by our ideals, and conscientious fact finders, however denominated, can be expected to be sensitive to their obligations to respect the rule of reasonable doubt, or to ignore it, as the law may require. And just as the value of taking an oath is not to be denigrated because it is no guarantee of veracity (cf. Matter of Brown v. Ristich, 36 N.Y.2d 183), so can consciousness of our credos act as an antidote to the dissipation of the quality of life in general and of justice in particular, in the present case against a more casual standard for a penal determination.

The majority suggests that the elimination of the possibility of imprisonment makes a lower standard of proof more acceptable. Regrettably, I find it necessary to disagree, all the more so because one does not appear to be reasonably related to the other.

Subdivision 1 of section 10.00 of the Penal Law, defining an "offense", the category in which traffic violations are now classified (see Penal Law, § 10.00, subd. 2), specifically includes "conduct for which a sentence to a term of imprisonment or to a fine is provided by any law" (emphasis added). Fines for speeding, the offense involved in this case, can be as high as $500. A defendant's driving privileges, on which one's mobility in today's society may be utterly dependent, and which is a privilege protected by due process (see Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535, 539), may be forfeit. It even has been held that conviction for an offense may be the basis for a legal assault upon one's reputation (see People v. Gray, 41 A.D.2d 125, affd 34 N.Y.2d 903; cf. People v. Sandoval, 34 N.Y.2d 371, 377; but see Vehicle and Traffic Law, § 155), certainly a matter to be coveted above mere material considerations. These penalties, far more than the tiny incidence of brief jailings for speeding violations, are the jeopardies at stake. (See People v. Phinney, 22 N.Y.2d 288, supra.) In any event, even a "civil label" and even "good intentions", would not dilute the constitutional mandate. (In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, supra.)

Nor do I believe it relevant that administrative agencies do not apply the reasonable doubt standard. The comparison falls short because such agencies have had an historical development separate and apart from our courts and, therefore, did not automatically adopt the proved values of the common law, a thing to be regretted rather than emulated. Nor does the fact that the bureaucratic needs of such agencies do indeed cause them to "routinely impose civil fines and penalties on lesser standards" justify our diluting the higher standards in areas that have heretofore been safe from such intrusion.

Also, if we allow the "incidental" casting aside of the reasonable doubt standard, are we not opening the door to the frittering away of other fundamental rights as well? Advocates of the removal of the right of confrontation, or of cross-examination, in such instances at least would be able to argue that such measures might very well shorten hearings. And who could gainsay that speeding violations could be dealt with even more expeditiously if the need to make out a prima facie case was dispensed with altogether by presuming guilt and casting the burden of proving innocence on defendants?

The lack of rationality behind that part of the statute before us which would eliminate the reasonable doubt standard also produces an overflow imposing on equal protection. "`[T]he equal protection clause * * * does not preclude the states from resorting to classification for the purposes of legislation * * * But the classification "must be reasonable, not arbitrary, and must rest upon some ground of difference having a fair and substantial relation to the object of the legislation"'". (Merchants Refrig. Co. v. Taylor, 275 N.Y. 113, 121.) For example, in the present case, there is nothing to indicate that speeding offenses are proportionately more prevalent in our jammed urban centers,* where more often than not motor vehicles have to move at a snail's pace, than in our rural and suburban areas, traversed as they are by the open road or the express highway. It is, then, paradoxical that the lessened standard for speeding convictions is to be applied only in large urban areas, while reserving the jail threat for rural travelers.

Thus, in Commissioner of Public Welfare (Martinez) v. Torres (263 App. Div. 19), the First Department, finding no rational basis for a classification, struck down a statute requiring corroboration for certain defendants' testimony in paternity proceedings brought in New York City but not elsewhere in the State. The reasoning in that case is equally applicable here. Missouri v. Lewis (101 U.S. 22), cited in Torres and relied on by the majority, does not hold to the contrary. That case upheld a classification providing for a two-tier system of appeal courts in metropolitan St. Louis and a single, direct appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court in the rest of that State. Significantly, however, it was not even remotely hinted that any of the appellate courts within the Missouri court organization structure may apply a different requirement as to the standard of proof for finding of guilt in one part of that State than in the other.

Salsburg v. Maryland (346 U.S. 545), which upheld a statute permitting the admission of evidence, though illegally obtained, in one highly urbanized part of that State alone, was decided long before Mapp v. Ohio (367 U.S. 643) established that the protections of the Fourth Amendment of the Federal Constitution are applicable to State courts and, therefore, did not involve a then recognized due process right. Yet, despite the fact that the Supreme Court, therefore, viewed the case as involving only "Rules of evidence, being procedural in their nature, [which] are purely discretionary with the law-making authority" (Salsburg, supra, p. 550), it made careful note of the fact that Maryland's Attorney-General had shown the existence of a rational basis for the classification arising out of an unusually high incidence of illegal gambling in the area involved, a problem with which the Legislature of that State apparently thought it wise to deal with by placing less restraint on law enforcement officials. A fortifier, a rational base was all the more essential in the case before us, where an admittedly important right is at stake.

Our task here is made easier because the statutory scheme here involved would not be disrupted or even disturbed if the elimination of the reasonable doubt standard were invalidated. That provision and the rest of the statute, far from being inextricably interwoven, are readily separable. Under such circumstances, courts will save the rest of a statute though a part must fall, particularly where the legislative purpose, here an expedient means of trying traffic violations, can be carried out just as well despite the severance. (McKinney's Cons. Laws of N. Y., Book 1, Statutes, § 150.)

Accordingly, especially in the absence of a showing of any permissible objective, I would find subdivision 1 of section 227 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, the statute here involved, to the extent that the second sentence thereof permits the establishment of a charge by less than the reasonable doubt standard, to be unconstitutional, would modify the order below accordingly and would remand the matter for further proceedings consistent therewith.

Judgment reversed, with costs, the administrative determination reinstated and petition dismissed.


* By section 2 of chapter 359 of the Laws of 1972 the population floor was lowered to 275,000.
* Article 2-A of the Vehicle and Traffic Law applies only to the cities of Buffalo, New York and Rochester.


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