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Appellate court overturns decision to dismiss vehicular homicide charge in LIE death of Nassau County police officer

James Ryan was charged with vehicular manslaughter and

James Ryan was charged with vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving in the death of Nassau police officer Joseph Olivieri, shown in an undated photo. Credit: NCPD

An appellate court has overturned a judge's decision to dismiss an aggravated vehicular homicide charge against an Oakdale man in connection with the 2012 death of a Nassau County police officer.

The Brooklyn court Wednesday reinstated seven criminal counts against James Ryan -- including manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter counts -- saying there was "legally sufficient proof before the grand jury that the defendant's actions 'caused' the officer's death."

In 2013, Acting State Supreme Court Justice Jerald Carter found police Officer Joseph Olivieri Jr.'s death was "solely attributable" to the actions of a different driver who had been behind the wheel of a sport utility vehicle that struck Olivieri on the Long Island Expressway.

Authorities have said the officer was struck in North Hills while responding to crashes caused by Ryan's drunken driving.

Ryan faces several other charges from the initial indictment, including DWI, vehicular assault and reckless endangerment, and remains free on bail. He is expected to be in court next month.

Prosecutors previously said Ryan, now 27, struck a car while driving east on the LIE but kept driving for about a half-mile before stopping abruptly and being rear-ended by another vehicle. When Olivieri responded to help, he crossed the LIE on foot and was hit by a Cadillac Escalade, according to prosecutors.

The Appellate Court's Second Judicial Department ruled it was "reasonably foreseeable that the defendant's conduct would cause collisions and that the police would respond and be required to be in the roadway, where they would be exposed to the potentially lethal danger presented by fast-moving traffic."

The court's ruling further said the defendant's actions "need not be the sole cause of death and, indeed, the defendant need not have committed the fatal act to be liable."The Nassau district attorney's office had appealed Carter's December 2013 ruling, after arguing that Ryan's actions forged a link in the chain of events that caused Olivieri's death. Prosecutors had said Olivieri was "suddenly and violently killed" responding to two crashes they said Ryan's drunken driving had sparked. The sport utility vehicle's driver got immunity after testifying before a grand jury. Prosecutors decided that motorist's actions weren't criminal.

"Today's decision puts the issue back into a jury's hands," Acting Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas said in an emailed statement.

Olivieri was 43 when he died Oct. 18, 2012, and had been a member of the Nassau police force for 13 years after serving five years with the NYPD.

The LIE overpass on New Hyde Park Road in North Hills has since been renamed in his honor. "We're pleased with the decision and we feel it's the right decision," Nassau PBA president James Carver said, adding he had talked to a brother of the late officer about the decision.

"It's a good day for the family," Carver said of the Olivieris. Ryan's attorney, Marc Gann, said Wednesday he found the appellate court's decision surprising, calling it "a real stretch" to blame Ryan for Olivieri's death and not the driver of the vehicle that hit the officer.

"I don't agree with the decision and I'm hopeful that the Court of Appeals will take a look at it and reverse it," the Mineola attorney said.

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