Bill Targeting Drivers With Suspended Licenses Gains Steam

Last January, Alexander Aponte struck and killed nine-year-old Ibrihim Ahmed in Ozone Park while driving with a suspended license. He was charged with a misdemeanor -- driving without a license -- that carried a maximum penalty of $500 and/or 30 days in prison. The Queens DA's office said prosecutors couldn't levy more serious charges unless Albany rewrote the laws.

Robert_Sweeney.jpgAssm. Robert Sweeney, sponsor of a new traffic enforcement law.

As Streetsblog reported last fall, Assembly Member Robert Sweeney, a Democrat from Suffolk County, is trying to do just that, with a bill to give prosecutors the power to go after drivers with suspended licenses who cause serious injuries. Now he's gaining support from his colleagues in Albany. Just last week, Sen. Liz Krueger signed on as a cosponsor of the Senate counterpart after hearing from her constituents. The bill now has 10 sponsors in the Assembly and two in the Senate, with support from both sides of the aisle.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance also gave the legislation his endorsement during his campaign. A spokesperson for his office confirmed that he still supports it. Elected officials are becoming aware of this hole in our criminal code and the urgent need to fix it.

Currently in New York State, unlicensed drivers can reasonably expect to avoid criminal charges for causing injury or death unless they leave the scene or are determined to be intoxicated. Sweeney's bill, A02612, would classify vehicular assault and manslaughter as felonies in cases where a driver's license has been suspended or revoked. "If you get behind the wheel of a vehicle and you know it's illegal to do that," Sweeney told Streetsblog, "and you get into an accident where someone is seriously hurt, that's entirely preventable."

Though other legislators are signing on, Sweeney's bill faces an uphill battle toward becoming law. "To be frank," said Sweeney, "doing bills that increase the penalties is not always the easiest thing to get done in the Assembly." The bill was introduced at the beginning of last year and has yet to clear the codes committee. 

Despite the toll exacted by unlicensed drivers in New York City, neither Mayor Bloomberg nor Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has publicly shown interest in legislative action to crack down on this deadly behavior. The City Council, meanwhile, shut down citizens calling for justice in the days after Ibrihim Ahmed died.

Sweeney says he sponsored this legislation after seeing too many of his constituents hurt or killed by drivers who "shouldn't have been behind the wheel in the first place.

"When you have people driving with a suspended or revoked license and getting into serious accidents," Sweeney said, "to my way of thinking, that's not an accident. That's deliberate."