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In Brooklyn, Another Alleged Unlicensed Driver Faces Wrist Tap for Killing

An allegedly unlicensed driver who killed a pedestrian in a Brooklyn crosswalk last month was not charged with criminal negligence by NYPD or District Attorney Ken Thompson. Meanwhile, legislation to increase the penalty for causing a death while driving without a valid license continues to languish in Albany.

The motorist who killed Raul Leone-Vasquez was charged with unlicensed driving and careless driving, but was not charged by Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson with criminal negligence under the “rule of two.”

The motorist who killed Raul Leone-Vasquez was charged with unlicensed driving, a misdemeanor, and careless driving, a traffic infraction, but was not charged by Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson with criminal negligence.

Raul Leone-Vasquez was crossing Bay Parkway at Bath Avenue at around 6:35 a.m. on December 28 when Simcha Rosenblatt hit him with a Toyota Camry, according to the Bensonhurst Bean and the Daily News. Leone-Vasquez, 27, suffered head trauma and died at Lutheran Hospital. His death was reported by several outlets Wednesday, following an NYPD media release.

Rosenblatt, 60, of Lakewood, New Jersey, was charged with aggravated unlicensed operation and failure to exercise due care. The Bensonhurst Bean and WNBC reported that, according to police, Leone-Vasquez was crossing Bay Parkway east to west, in the crosswalk, and Rosenblatt was southbound on Bay Parkway. If that account is accurate, and Leone-Vasquez had a walk signal, it appears Rosenblatt would either have been turning from Bath Avenue onto Bay Parkway or he drove south through the intersection against the light.

Aggravated unlicensed operation is a low-level misdemeanor that stipulates that Rosenblatt drove without a license when he knew or should have known he didn’t have one. It is common for NYPD and city prosecutors to file a top charge of aggravated unlicensed operation when an accused unlicensed driver kills a pedestrian. It’s the same charge applied by police and prosecutors when an unlicensed driver commits a traffic infraction.

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Suffolk DA Stands With Traffic Violence Victims — Will NYC DAs Follow Suit?

To get a district attorney to talk about traffic violence on camera, you have to go to Long Island. Image: WCBS

To get a district attorney to talk about traffic violence on camera, you have to go to Long Island. Image: WCBS

On Tuesday, New Yorkers tuned into the evening news might have seen a district attorney standing with victims of traffic violence. But the prosecutor wasn’t from one of the five boroughs.

WCBS reports:

The families of four victims killed in hit-and-run crashes in Suffolk County called on Albany on Tuesday to enact tougher sentences for drivers who flee the scene.

The families, accompanied by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and state senators, demanded that the maximum sentence be increased from seven to 15 years for hit-and-run drivers involved in fatal crashes, WCBS 880 Long Island Bureau Chief Mike Xirinachs reported.

Spota said the state’s current hit-and-run laws are too weak and there’s no incentive to stay at the scene, CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan reported.

“Because that person has the opportunity to get to their house, sober up, get rid of their car or hide their car or deny that they were the drivers of their vehicles,” Spota said.

Spota was speaking in support of a bill to elevate leaving the scene of a fatal crash to a class C felony. The bill passed the State Senate in 2013 and 2014 but stalled both sessions in Assembly Member David Gantt’s transportation committee.

With Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver under federal indictment, what happens in Albany this year is anyone’s guess, but it’s nonetheless encouraging to see a district attorney publicly calling on the state legislature to act on behalf of people who have lost loved ones to reckless drivers. (Kathleen Rice gained national recognition for prosecuting drunk drivers for murder during her tenure as district attorney in neighboring Nassau County.)

New York City prosecutors blame weak statutes for making it difficult to bring cases against motorists who injure and kill, yet with the exception of Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson, none have announced plans to work with Families For Safe Streets to hold reckless drivers accountable, much less have they joined victims in urging Albany to strengthen state law.

Queens DA Richard Brown and Bronx DA Robert Johnson are up for re-election in 2015. Staten Island DA Dan Donovan, whose term is also up this year, is running for Congress.

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So Far, Ken Thompson Is the Only DA to Meet With Families For Safe Streets

With Families For Safe Streets appealing to New York City’s five district attorneys to prosecute dangerous drivers who injure or kill, one DA has opened his doors to them.

Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. Photo: Brooklyn DA’s Office

At a City Hall rally last Sunday, Families For Safe Streets announced that Thompson is launching the District Attorney Driver Accountability Initiative. ”The new initiative is designed to address issues relative to Brooklyn,” said Thompson spokesperson Helen Peterson. “We have met with representatives of Families For Safe Streets and Transportation Alternatives and all of the five requests… are being discussed.”

That meeting was held in mid-December after Mohammad Uddin, 14, became the third student at M.S. 51 in Brooklyn to be struck and killed by a driver in 13 months. Council Member Brad Lander initiated the sit-down with Thompson at the request of the Uddin family. Thompson is hosting a follow-up meeting with the families, legislators, and other law enforcement experts on January 29.

“We need for the DAs to consistently hold reckless drivers who kill and injure accountable. The DAs have only brought a handful of cases each year,” said Amy Cohen of Families For Safe Streets. “The Brooklyn DA has said he will increase enforcement and we demand that others do the same.”

At the event on Sunday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said she would help FFSS gain traction with the Manhattan DA. “I’m a big fan, I have to say, of Cy Vance, so we will figure out why he’s not prosecuting in the way that has been suggested by the Brooklyn district attorney,” Brewer said. “As Manhattan borough president, I will take that on as an agenda item.”

Update: After publication, Vance spokesperson Joan Vollero offered a statement: ”The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has been in touch with Families For Safe Streets to arrange a meeting, as we have previously with Transportation Alternatives and families members. Our door is always open.”

After a loved one is killed, families say they often feel cut out of the process that determines consequences for drivers. Families For Safe Streets is calling on the DAs to use “restorative justice” programs, which involve mediation and commonly offer alternative sentencing to juvenile offenders with the approval of the victim’s family. The goal of these programs isn’t to mete out harsh jail terms but to prevent repeat behavior in the future, and Families For Safe Streets wants to see this approach expanded to vehicular violence cases.

When Streetsblog followed up after the rally, DAs didn’t respond directly to the request for restorative justice techniques. ”We always use the input of our victims to determine an appropriate plea,” said Bronx DA spokesperson Terry Raskyn.

Another request from families of crash victims is for the DAs to systematically compile and share data about charges and outcomes in vehicular violence cases. The Bronx DA’s office said it’s making progress on that front. Its information technology department is working to change its filing systems so vehicular crimes can be categorized separately for analysis.

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DAs Insist They Don’t Call Car Crashes “Accidents,” Except When They Do

Queens DA Richard Brown, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, and Bronx DA Robert Johnson.

Queens DA Richard Brown, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, and Bronx DA Robert Johnson.

Among the demands Families For Safe Streets is making of district attorneys, one of the simpler changes is to stop using the word “accident” to describe traffic collisions. In exchanges this week, the offices of three district attorneys said in no uncertain terms that they already refrain from using the word “accident” in this manner. But that’s not actually the case.

Even former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly eventually came to the conclusion that the words we use to describe traffic violence matter. He directed NYPD in 2013 to adopt the word “collision” instead of “accident,” because “the term ‘accident’ has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event.” An “accident” is unavoidable, absolving people of responsibility, but a “crash” or “collision” has causes and can be traced to people’s actions.

In statements, DAs seem to understand this and claim to have dropped the word “accident” years ago. But in practice, they continue to call it an “accident” whenever a driver kills someone without receiving any criminal charge — which means the vast majority of the time.

“Prosecutors citywide have always called these cases ‘crashes,’” said Terry Raskyn, a spokesperson for Bronx DA Robert Johnson. She credited pressure from DAs in getting both NYPD and the DMV to stop using “accidents” as an official term in 2013. “We’ve spent 20 years objecting at trial to the defense attorneys characterizing them as accidents,” she said.

Yet in an accompanying statement explaining why he does not pursue charges against more drivers, Johnson said: “The legislature and the courts have outlined the rules for separating crimes from accidents. We go to great lengths to gather all available evidence in such cases, and then evaluate that evidence based on the state of the law. We make every effort to do as much as the law allows.”

Johnson isn’t the only district attorney so quick to discard the more neutral terminology. “Since DA Vance took office in 2010, this office has used the following terminology: crashes, collisions, and strikes,” said Vance spokesperson Joan Vollero. “We do not use the word ‘accident.’”

But when former Police Commissioner Howard Safir struck a woman before driving off in 2010, Vance’s office described it as an “accident” before deciding not to pursue charges. When asked about vehicular violence in November, Vance himself said “a prosecution is not necessarily a following event after a tragic accident.” And just yesterday, Vance fell back on the word “accident” three times to explain why he rarely prosecutes reckless drivers.

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DA Cy Vance: Most Manhattan Traffic Deaths Aren’t Crimes

Sofia Russo, whose daughter Ariel was killed by a Manhattan driver, is swarmed by reporters after asking Manhattan DA Cy Vance to meet with the families of crash victims. Photo: Brad Aaron

Sofia Russo, whose daughter Ariel was killed by a Manhattan driver, is swarmed by reporters after she asked District Attorney Cy Vance to meet with families of crash victims. Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson has agreed to work with Families For Safe Streets to hold drivers accountable for killing pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: Brad Aaron

All Cy Vance wanted to do was talk computer crime at the Yale Club, but Sofia Russo, who lost her daughter to traffic violence, wouldn’t let him stick to the script.

At a Crain’s breakfast in Midtown today, the Manhattan district attorney assured the capacity crowd that his office is going after gangs, targeting terrorists, and “keeping New York safe for business.” He also revealed that in four years he secured indictments in just 190 vehicular cases — including crashes involving drunk driving — which means he has allowed thousands of motorists to go unpenalized for injuring and killing people in traffic.

It’s pretty well established that Vance is serious about “cybercrime.” The Internet, Vance said this morning, is “our modern crime scene,” with fraud and other nefarious activity at “epidemic levels,” committed by perpetrators who “operate with impunity.” Vance touted a new lab dedicated to computer crimes, as well as a prosecutor training program. There are 85 assistant district attorneys assigned to computer-based crime in Vance’s office, he said, 15 of them full-time.

“Please consider this, those of you who are in the business world, my direct appeal,” said Vance. ”If you see cybercrime, report it to us. Call me, call the head of our investigation division … and we will respond to you promptly.”

Though he promised to make traffic justice a priority when he first ran for office in 2009, Vance hasn’t been as committed to holding motorists accountable for causing physical harm to pedestrians and cyclists. His prepared remarks didn’t touch on the thousands of people killed and injured by reckless Manhattan drivers on his watch — victims whose experiences with the DA’s office have often been frustrating. Traffic violence didn’t come up this morning until moderator Erik Engquist, Crain’s assistant managing editor, asked him the following:

“It’s basically legal in New York City, with the exception of the $250 fine you get, to turn into a crosswalk and run over pedestrians — kill them, maim them, mutilate them — if you stop, get out, express sympathy, and pay your $250 fine for failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. During your campaign in 2009 you said that that was wrong, that if you kill a person it was a crime, and this ‘rule of two’ … that you have to be doing something else at the same time to justify a conviction, like be drunk for instance, should not apply. In fact, doesn’t it still apply? Have you really kept to that?”

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Families of Traffic Violence Victims Demand Justice From District Attorneys

Photo: Stephen Miller

Judy Kottick speaks about her daughter Ella Bandes, who was killed by a turning MTA bus driver in 2013. No charges were filed. Photo: Stephen Miller

Braving the cold, more than 150 people gathered on the steps of City Hall yesterday to demand that New York City’s five district attorneys begin filing charges against reckless drivers who kill and injure New Yorkers on the streets.

“The five New York City district attorneys have failed to do their job,” said Amy Cohen, who helped found Families For Safe Streets after her 12-year-old son Sammy was killed in 2013. No charges were filed against the driver who killed her son. “New York City has a culture of lawlessness on our streets, because reckless drivers are not held accountable,” she said.

Charges for reckless or negligent driving are exceedingly rare absent other aggravating circumstances, even in cases where the victim dies. Since January 2012, more than 500 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed by drivers in NYC, but in only two known occasions have city DAs filed homicide charges against a driver who was not drunk, fleeing the scene, running from police, or intentionally attacking the victim, according to records kept by Streetsblog. Fewer than 2 percent of drivers in non-DUI cases are prosecuted, according to Families For Safe Streets.

Families for Safe Streets is asking for five changes from the DAs:

  • Comprehensive Vision Zero training for all staff and changing terminology from “accidents,” which implies a lack of fault, to “crashes” or “collisions.”
  • Work with NYPD to widely prosecute misdemeanor driving offenses in criminal court, including violations of Section 19-190, also known as the Right of Way Law, which creates criminal penalties for drivers who injure or kill pedestrians and cyclists with the right of way.
  • Significantly increase the number of reckless sober drivers charged with felony crimes and lead the charge for city and state legislative changes that may be necessary.
  • Introduce “restorative justice” and other alternative sentencing practices as part of the pre-plea conference for vehicular violence cases, with the input of victims and families.
  • Systematically compile and share data about charges filed and outcomes in vehicular violence cases.

Three of the city’s five district attorneys are on the ballot this year: Queens DA Richard Brown, who was first elected in 1991; Bronx DA Robert Johnson, who took office in 1989; and Staten Island DA Daniel Donovan, who was first elected to the position in 2003 and is now running for the congressional seat vacated by Michael Grimm. Ken Thompson defeated incumbent Charles Hynes in the race for Brooklyn DA in 2013. The same year, Manhattan DA Cy Vance faced only token opposition before cruising to a second term.

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Sunday: Families For Safe Streets to Train Spotlight on Feckless NYC DAs

Left to right: District attorneys Richard Brown, Dan Donovan, and Robert Johnson are up for re-election in 2015. NYC DAs are a major obstacle to Mayor de Blasio's Vision Zero program.

Left to right: District attorneys Richard Brown, Dan Donovan, and Robert Johnson are up for re-election in 2015. NYC DAs are a major obstacle to Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero program.

Since January 2012, Streetsblog has maintained a database of all known pedestrians and cyclists killed by drivers in New York City. We collect as much information on each crash as possible, including any charges filed against the motorists who took the victims’ lives.

Of over 400 fatalities tracked by Streetsblog in three years, in only two instances that we know of did a city district attorney file homicide charges against a driver for killing a pedestrian or cyclist following a crash that did not involve one or more aggravating factors, such as impairment by alcohol or drugs, hit-and-run, evading police, or striking a victim intentionally. In 2014, the inaugural year of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, there were no such prosecutions.

“Why is it that if you kill someone while driving drunk, the district attorney will press charges, but not if you kill or maim someone through reckless behavior on the road,” said Amy Cohen, whose 12-year-old son Sammy Cohen Eckstein was killed by a driver in Brooklyn in 2013, in a press release from Transportation Alternatives. On Sunday, TA and Families For Safe Streets will hold a rally at City Hall to “call on the City’s five district attorneys to become partners in the Vision Zero effort to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries.”

In the past three years, according to Streetsblog data, New York City motorists killed at least 27 children age 14 and under. Five of those drivers were charged for causing a death. Of those five, two were also accused of DWI, one fled the scene, and one was being chased by police. Only once since January 2012 has a city DA charged a sober driver who remained at the scene, and was not fleeing police, for fatally striking a child.

One year ago Saturday, a cab driver hit 9-year-old Cooper Stock and his father in an Upper West Side crosswalk. Cooper was killed, his father injured. The driver was ticketed for careless driving and failing to yield the right of way, but NYPD and Manhattan DA Cy Vance filed no criminal charges. ”Most New Yorkers don’t understand the reality that a driver can kill or maim your loved one, and then get back in their car and drive off, with no consequences,” said Dana Lerner in the TA press release.

TA wants the City Council, which has a say in how much money DAs get from the city budget, to begin holding oversight hearings on whether prosecutors are helping advance the goals of Vision Zero, as well as new legislation to compel DAs to release information about their cases. Three district attorneys — Richard Brown in Queens, Robert Johnson in the Bronx, and Dan Donovan in Staten Island — are up for re-election this year.

“District attorneys are the people’s prosecutors, and they must champion public safety,” said Paul Steely White, TA executive director. “The public needs more information about how D.A.s determine whether to prosecute after serious crashes, and how often they bring charges.”

Sunday’s rally begins at 2 p.m. on the City Hall steps.

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Unlicensed, Hit-and-Run Drivers Kill First NYC Pedestrian Victims of 2015

Motorists struck four pedestrians in two crashes in Manhattan and the Bronx over the weekend, killing two victims. One driver in the Bronx was charged with leaving the scene and reckless driving, while another remains at large. The Manhattan motorist, operating a vehicle with TLC plates, was ticketed for driving without a license, though NYPD blamed the victims in the press. The drivers were not charged for causing death and injury by NYPD or district attorneys Cy Vance and Robert Johnson.

Wesley Mensing was killed and Erin Sauchelli injured by the driver of a vehicle with TLC plates. The driver was ticketed for unlicensed driving but was not charged with a crime by NYPD or Manhattan DA Cy Vance. Photo via Post

Wesley Mensing was killed and Erin Sauchelli injured by the driver of a vehicle with TLC plates. The driver was ticketed for unlicensed driving but was not charged with a crime by NYPD or Manhattan DA Cy Vance. Photo via New York Post

At approximately 7:18 p.m. Saturday, Wesley Mensing and Erin Sauchelli were crossing E. 62nd Street at Lexington Avenue north to south when Aliou Diallo, eastbound on 62nd, drove a Mercedes SUV into them, according to NYPD, the Post, and the Daily News.

Mensing, 27, a noted golf instructor who lived in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, died at the scene. He was the first known New York City pedestrian fatality of 2015. Sauchelli, 30, was hospitalized with head and leg injuries.

Diallo was summonsed — but was not charged criminally — for unlicensed driving, NYPD said. Citing unnamed police sources, the Post reported that Mensing and Sauchelli were “not in the crosswalk,” and an NYPD spokesperson told Streetsblog they were crossing E. 62nd between Lexington and Third Avenue. Yet photos of the scene show the SUV sitting on E. 62nd just a few feet from the intersection, which seems to indicate that Mensing and Sauchelli were struck within or very close to the crosswalk.

NYPD has a history of relying solely on driver testimony when investigating pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Since the Right of Way Law took effect last August, expressly making it a misdemeanor offense for motorists to injure or kill people with the right of way, police have repeatedly blamed deceased pedestrians by claiming they were outside a crosswalk when they were struck by motorists.

NYPD had no information on how fast Diallo was driving, or how he failed to see two people in the street in front of him. Regardless of how the crash occurred, it is a crime in New York State to drive a vehicle if you know or have reason to know you don’t have a valid license. The investigation is “ongoing,” according to NYPD.

Also at issue is how an alleged unlicensed driver was allowed to operate a TLC-licensed vehicle. Saturday’s crash marked at least the second time in the past year that an accused unlicensed driver killed a pedestrian or cyclist with a livery cab. Streetsblog has asked the TLC for information on the livery base associated with the SUV Diallo was driving and whether Diallo had a current hack license at the time of the crash.

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DA Robert Johnson: No Charges for Driver Who Killed Child on Bronx Sidewalk

Bronx DA Robert Johnson filed no charges against the driver who hit 10 people, including at least three children, on a sidewalk outside a school, killing 8-year-old Rylee Ramos.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson filed no charges against the driver who hit 10 people, including at least three children, on a sidewalk outside a Kingsbridge Heights school, killing 8-year-old Rylee Ramos.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson filed no charges against a motorist who drove on a sidewalk outside a Bronx school in October, striking 10 people and killing 8-year-old Rylee Ramos.

New York City motorists have killed at least eight children age 14 and under in 2014 — one in the Bronx, two in Manhattan, and five in Brooklyn — according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog. NYPD and city DAs charged just one driver for causing a death.

On Friday, October 24, Sonia Rodriguez backed onto a curb outside PS 307 on Eames Place in Kingsbridge Heights as children exited the school after dismissal, according to the Daily News. At least three of the people she hit were children. A classmate and friend of Rylee’s was hospitalized, along with a 4-year-old girl and four women, the News said. Rylee’s mother was among the victims.

Rodriguez pinned Rylee to a pole with her car. “She must have not put her brakes on, and the car comes zooming out toward where the kids are coming out of the school,” witness Lenora Croft told the Daily News, which posted video of the crash. “What finally stopped the car was the green pole — and that’s where the little girl was standing.”

Rylee was pronounced dead at Saint Barnabas Hospital.

The Times reported in October that Rodriguez was questioned and released by NYPD. At that time a source with Johnson’s office told Streetsblog the crash was under investigation.

That was seven weeks ago. When as of last week the case hadn’t turned up in an online database of court records — likely indicating that no charges were filed — Streetsblog asked Johnson’s office for an update. Our message was not returned.

On December 11, the Riverdale Press reported that Rodriguez, whom the paper did not identify by name, “has not been charged, though police said an investigation is ongoing.”

Some perspective on “ongoing” crash investigations: The investigation into the death of 9-year-old Cooper Stock was officially open for months after Manhattan DA Cy Vance’s office told family members no charges would be filed against the cab driver who killed him.

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Vance Deal: $400 Fine for Unlicensed Driver Who Killed Senior in Crosswalk

An unlicensed driver who fatally struck a senior as she crossed the street with the right of way will pay a $400 fine, pursuant to a plea arrangement with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

NYPD and Manhattan DA Cy Vance declined to charge an unlicensed motorist for causing the death of a senior who was crossing the street with the right of way. The driver was fined $400 for driving without a license. Photo: Brad Aaron

NYPD and Manhattan DA Cy Vance declined to charge an unlicensed motorist for causing the death of a senior who was crossing the street with the right of way. The driver was fined $400 for driving without a license. Photo: Brad Aaron

Keiko Ohnishi was walking with a cane across Madison Avenue at E. 98th Street on September 4 at around 9:47 a.m. when Kristin Rodriguez, 25, drove a minivan into her while making a left turn from E. 98th onto Madison, according to NYPD and the Post.

“[The van] hit her and she [flew] up and back down and he kept on going with her under him,” witness Tracy Molloy told the Post. “He was trying to make the light like every New York City driver.”

“I walked over and started to pull her dress down, and the driver was panicking,” said Neud Clermont, another witness. “He was like, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t see you!’”

Ohnishi, 66, was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital in critical condition. She died from her injuries. Streetsblog was made aware of her death via the NYPD monthly crash data report and WNYC’s Mean Streets project.

Rodriguez, whose van had North Carolina plates, was summonsed for failure to yield and charged with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation, according to the Post and court records. He was not charged under city code Section 19-190, known as the Right of Way Law, which as of August makes it a misdemeanor to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. NYPD and Vance did not upgrade charges against Rodriguez after Ohnishi died.

Aggravated unlicensed operation is an unclassified misdemeanor, the lowest level misdemeanor category. It is seemingly the default charge against unlicensed drivers who kill New York City pedestrians, and is also applied when unlicensed drivers commit non-criminal traffic infractions. Third degree aggravated unlicensed operation carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Drivers who plead guilty are normally fined with no jail time.

At a Fordham Law School event in November, Vance said he is prevented from prosecuting drivers who kill in cases that “may not have the facts to support a criminal prosecution and conviction.” For this crash and others like it, however, the Vance team clearly had enough evidence to bring a criminal case, yet declined to charge an unlicensed motorist who failed to yield for taking a life. Since the driver was charged with unlicensed driving and failure to yield, this case also seems to satisfy the so-called “rule of two.”

On Wednesday, Rodriguez, who was free on $1,000 bond, pled guilty and was sentenced to a $400 fine and $88 in fees, court records say. There is no indication that the court took action against his driver’s license. Rodriguez is scheduled to pay his fine in March.