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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.

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Does Cy Vance Use His Surveillance Camera Bank to Fight Traffic Violence?

In New York City, if you hit someone with a motor vehicle and keep driving, odds are you will get away with it. NYPD made arrests in just 25 percent of fatal hit-and-run crashes in 2012, according to Transportation Alternatives. And in many cases where the driver is eventually identified, a simple “I didn’t see her” is all it takes to satisfy prosecutors and police.

A hit-and-run truck driver nearly killed Wendy Ruther and her 3-year-old son Justin. Is Cy Vance putting his lauded video surveillance system to work on the case? Photo via DNAinfo

A hit-and-run truck driver nearly killed Wendy Ruther and her 3-year-old son Justin. Is Cy Vance putting his lauded video surveillance system to work on the case? Photo via DNAinfo

On December 1, a truck driver hit Wendy Ruther and nearly ran over her young son, Justin, as the pair walked to Justin’s preschool. The two were in a crosswalk at W. 65th Street and Broadway, DNAinfo reported, when the driver made a right turn, hit them both, and continued south on Broadway. CBS reports that NYPD has yet to make an arrest, and Wendy Ruther remains hospitalized with serious injuries.

“She recalls feeling the three wheels of the truck going over her,” said the woman’s husband, Aldo Lombardi.

The hit-and-run accident, steps away from Lincoln Center, a week ago Monday nearly killed her.

“She still cannot believe she is alive,” Aldo Lombardi said.

Wendy Lombardi has a crushed leg, a fractured pelvis, and a deep gash near her eye. The injuries came as she managed to save the life of her 3-year-old son Justin.

“He recalls being hit by a big wheel,” Aldo Lombardi said. “Wendy managed to push him off of danger.”

CBS says Aldo Lombardi ”was told that the Lincoln Center security cameras at the scene were pointing the wrong way,” and “no one got a close look” at the driver. “I would ask him to come forward,” Lombardi said. “I would like him not to be on the streets.”

It seems that in Manhattan, at least, NYPD and vehicular crimes prosecutors have a powerful tool to help catch hit-and-run drivers, and collect evidence for other traffic crash cases. The recent New York Times profile of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance described a web of video surveillance cameras spanning the borough, with access at investigators’ fingertips.

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Driver With Revoked License Not Charged for Killing East Flatbush Senior

A driver with a revoked license killed a senior in Brooklyn Tuesday. As of Wednesday he was not charged by NYPD or District Attorney Ken Thompson for causing a death.

The crash occurred in the 67th Precinct, where motorists have killed at least three pedestrians this year, and at least seven pedestrians since January 2013.

Will District Attorney Ken Thompson charge an unlicensed driver for killing a Brooklyn senior? Image: ##http://www.ny1.com/content/politics/inside_city_hall/190291/ny1-online--brooklyn-da-candidate-thompson-responds-to-attacks##NY1##

Will District Attorney Ken Thompson charge an unlicensed driver for killing a Brooklyn senior? Image: NY1

At around 5:40 p.m., Joan Hale, 71, was crossing Foster Avenue at New York Avenue north to south when the motorist, eastbound on Foster, hit her with a 2012 Subaru Outback, according to NYPD. Police said the driver, a 75-year-old man, was proceeding with a green light, but had no information on how fast he was driving or how he failed to avoid hitting the victim.

Hale suffered severe head trauma and died at Kings County Hospital. The driver was arrested for driving with a revoked license. His name was withheld by NYPD.

It is not easy to lose a driver’s license in New York State, even temporarily. Offenses that make a license subject to revocation include DWI, homicide, leaving the scene of a crash resulting in injury or death, and three speeding or misdemeanor traffic violations committed within 18 months. For all of these offenses, except one, the minimum penalty imposed by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles is a six-month revocation. Driving with a BAC of .18 percent or higher carries a revocation of at least one year. There is no automatic DMV penalty for killing someone with a motor vehicle.

State lawmakers have failed to hold unlicensed motorists accountable. Legislation to make it a class E felony to cause injury or death while driving without a license was rejected by the State Senate this year, and did not come to a vote in the Assembly. Another bill to require drivers with suspended licenses to surrender vehicle registrations and license plates did not get a vote in either chamber last session. As it stands, a $500 fine is the standard penalty for killing a New York City pedestrian while driving without a valid license.

Motorists have killed at least five New York City pedestrians in December, including a child and three seniors. In four cases, NYPD blamed the victim in the press. Last Friday a driver hit 64-year-old Gloria Ramiro as she crossed Third Avenue at 81st Street. She died from her injuries Monday. Police said Ramiro was “crossing mid-block,” according to DNAinfo. The driver was not charged.

To voice your concerns about neighborhood traffic safety directly to Deputy Inspector Joseph M. Gulotta, the commanding officer of the 67th Precinct, go to the next precinct community council meeting. The 67th Precinct council meetings happen at 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month at the precinct, 2820 Snyder Avenue. Call 718-287-2530 for information.

The City Council district where Joan Hale was killed is represented by Jumaane Williams. Motorists have killed at least three pedestrians in Williams’s district in 2014. To encourage Williams to take action to improve street safety in his district and citywide, contact him at 212-788-6859, JWilliams@council.nyc.gov or @JumaaneWilliams.

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Cy Vance Files Homicide Charge in Lower East Side Pedestrian Death

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance filed a homicide charge against a driver accused of killing a pedestrian on the Lower East Side in November.

On the evening of November 24, the driver of a BMW sedan hit 57-year-old Robert Perry on the Bowery near Rivington Street, and kept driving until he hit a fire hydrant a block away, according to DNAinfo. Perry reportedly often stayed at the Bowery Mission, which is near the site of the crash.

NYPD arrested Danny Lin, 24, and charged him with homicide and leaving the scene. According to court records, criminally negligent homicide is currently the sole charge against him.

This crash appears to follow a pattern of New York City district attorneys bringing homicide charges against motorists accused of causing death through acts of especially brazen recklessness. According to crash data compiled by Streetsblog, in 2013 city DAs filed homicide charges only twice — once in Brooklyn, once in Queens — against drivers who killed pedestrians or cyclists and were not also charged for other aggravating circumstances, including driving drunk, leaving the scene, striking the victim intentionally, or fleeing police after committing another crime. 

A few hours after Perry was killed, a livery cab driver fatally struck cyclist Shan Zheng at Pitt Street at E. Houston Street. Neither NYPD nor Vance filed charges against the cab driver. Vance did not bring criminal charges against the cab driver who struck and killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock as he and his father crossed the street with the right of way. These are typical outcomes for crashes that result in the death of a New York City cyclist or pedestrian.

In New York State, criminally negligent homicide is a class E felony, the least severe felony category, with sentences ranging from probation to four years imprisonment.

Danny Lin is free on $10,000 bond, court records say, and is next scheduled to appear in court in February.

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Dana Lerner: Cy Vance Botched the Token Case Against My Son’s Killer

The cab driver who killed Cooper Stock is scheduled to be back in court in two months, thanks to what Stock’s mother Dana Lerner termed “inept” handling of the case by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office.

Meanwhile, Koffi Komlani’s apparent defense — that weather was to blame for the crash — is the same excuse Manhattan prosecutors gave Lerner for not pursuing a criminal case.

Cooper Stock

Cooper Stock

Komlani went before a judge this morning to answer a summons for careless driving, the only charge issued to him after the January crash. Though Komlani hit both Cooper and his father, Richard Stock, as they crossed an Upper West Side street in the crosswalk with the right of way, Vance filed no criminal charges.

Today prosecutors added a summons for failure to yield. Komlani is fighting the tickets, so the case was continued. By the time Komlani is back in court to contest the two traffic summonses, it will have been 13 months since the crash.

Lerner released a statement today, via Transportation Alternatives:

Obviously a failure to yield violation should have been issued to the driver who killed my son, Cooper. It is unbelievable that the ticket was not presented to the driver at the scene when he killed Cooper. My persistence has led to heightened attention to the need for justice in this case — it should not be up to the loved ones of victims to ensure that the justice system does its job. Now my family must endure even more heartache as we wait for February when the driver will be in court again related to this long-overdue charge. Both the NYPD and the district attorney, at the very least, owe me a public explanation for this wrong-doing.

“They’re just so inept,” Lerner told the Post, referring to Vance’s office.

Careless driving carries a maximum penalty of up to 15 days in jail, a fine of up to $750, a license suspension of up to six months, and a drivers’ ed course. The minimum is no penalty. Outside the courtroom, Komlani’s attorney Raymond Colon said Vance has offered Komlani a license suspension and a fine.

Colon said there is video of the crash, but neither he nor Komlani have seen it. ”It was dark,” Colon said. “The weather may have been a little inclement, and there may have been a lot of traffic.”

Lerner told Streetsblog during an interview last summer that, in one of their early meetings, a Vance ADA said it would be difficult to make a case against Komlani because “it was raining” at the time of the crash.

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Families for Safe Streets to Call on DAs to Prosecute Reckless Drivers

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

Update: Sunday’s event has been postponed, according to a TA press release, “in solidarity with those protesting the grand jury decision not to indict in the Eric Garner case.”

The cab driver who killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock is scheduled to appear in court Friday. Koffi Komlani was issued two traffic tickets, but unlike most drivers who kill New York City pedestrians, his case will be adjudicated in criminal court, the venue preferred by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

The top “charge” against Komlani is careless driving, which carries a maximum penalty of up to 15 days in jail, a fine of up to $750, a license suspension of up to six months, and a mandatory drivers’ ed course. The minimum penalty is no penalty. As Jill Abramson wrote Wednesday: “It is unclear whether [Komlani] will be fined or otherwise punished. D.A. Vance wanted him to be forced to appear in court, in part to blunt criticism of his office for not bringing criminal charges in the case.”

Regardless of what happens tomorrow, on Sunday Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets will hold a rally on the steps of City Hall to call on city district attorneys to prosecute reckless drivers who cause death and serious injury. Along with NYPD and the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, New York City district attorneys have emerged as a major obstacle to Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative. A TA press release says victims and their loved ones want DAs “to become partners in the Vision Zero effort.”

“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 motorist last year, in a press release. “Crashes caused by aggressive driving are not accidents. When drivers make turns at full speed without even looking, or speed through intersections and kill people, D.A.s never press charges. We need to change the culture on our streets and make it unacceptable to drive recklessly. We will never get to zero fatalities and serious injuries unless we hold dangerous drivers accountable for their actions.”

“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.”

White called for City Council oversight hearings and legislation to requiring DAs to report to the public on traffic crash prosecutions.

Richard Brown of Queens, Robert Johnson of the Bronx, and Dan Donovan of Staten Island are up for re-election in 2015. Transportation Alternatives “will press the issue of driver accountability with all the candidates,” White said.

Sunday’s rally begins at 2 p.m.

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For Traffic Violence Victims, Cy Vance’s “Moneyball” Still a Field of Dreams

You won’t find much discussion of traffic violence in Chip Brown’s 5,500-word encomium to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, published Wednesday by the New York Times Magazine. Other than noting that dismissals of drunk driving cases are down, according to Vance’s office, Brown doesn’t broach the subject at all.

Despite advances in other areas, there is no evidence that Vance has applied his lauded moon shot ethos to traffic crime. Photo: Brad Aaron

Despite advances in other areas, there is no evidence that Manhattan District Attorney Vance, now in his second term, has applied his moon shot ethos to traffic crime. Photo: Brad Aaron

To rein in gang violence and other street-level crime, Brown writes, the Vance team maintains close contact with NYPD, keeps a database of public and private surveillance cameras to track suspects, and even investigates unreported shootings through social media. ”Their pole star wasn’t convictions but safety, a goal as readily attained by preventing crime as by prosecuting it,” writes Brown.

“We ask ourselves, Are we doing everything possible to reduce crime?” said Vance hire Chauncey Parker, whose job, according to Brown, is “dreaming up ideas, no matter how outlandish, that might reduce crime.”

It’s telling that while diagramming the gee-whiz mechanics behind Vance’s “intelligence-driven” approach to crime fighting, no one from the Vance camp highlights any data-centric techniques the DA’s office has applied to reducing traffic crashes in Manhattan, which still result in thousands of injuries and deaths per year.

Fortunately, a few paragraphs from another story published yesterday, Jill Abramson’s examination of the suffering and grief caused by reckless drivers, and how it is compounded by the failure of New York City law enforcers to seek justice for victims, fill the gap in Brown’s piece nicely.

Abramson cites the death of 9-year-old Cooper Stock, killed last January by a cab driver while in a crosswalk with his father, as one example of a deadly crash that resulted in no charges from Vance.

The most frequent complaint voiced by the families of dead pedestrians is the reluctance of the city’s D.A.s, especially Manhattan’s Cyrus Vance, to file criminal charges against drivers. “In the Cooper Stock case they could have at least suspended the driver’s license of the cab driver,” said attorney Matthew Dawes, “they just don’t have any cojones.”

This is surprising, because Vance made a campaign vow to abrogate the Rule of Two and to be more aggressive. But early in his tenure, his office had an embarrassing defeat in the case of the death of a 68-year-old woman who was killed by a driver while she was bicycling in Chelsea with her husband over the Fourth of July weekend in 2011.

Her name was Marilyn Dershowitz and she was the sister-in-law of famed law professor Alan Dershowitz. The driver, postal worker Ian Clement, had initially left the scene of the crash. He was acquitted by a jury in 2012.

Since then, there haven’t been any high-profile prosecutions by Vance in traffic death cases.

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Queens DA Richard Brown on Driver Who Killed Allison Liao: Accidents Happen

The lead vehicular crimes prosecutor for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown (pictured) says a motorist who was cited by NYPD for failure to yield and careless driving, and who tested positive for alcohol, “had a green light” when he killed 3-year-old Allison Liao and injured her grandmother by striking them in a crosswalk. Brown’s office filed no charges. Photos via WNYC and Queens DA’s office

A letter from District Attorney Richard Brown’s office explaining why no charges were filed against the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao offers disturbing insight into the mindset of prosecutors charged with holding motorists accountable for serious traffic crashes in Queens.

The crash was captured on video. On the afternoon of October 6, 2013, Allison was walking hand in hand with her grandmother in a crosswalk at Main Street and Cherry Avenue in Flushing when the driver approached from behind and to their right. The motorist turned directly into them, striking both with the front corner of his SUV and pulling Allison under the left wheels. Her grandmother, Chin Hua Liao, was injured.

Police summonsed Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh for failure to yield and careless driving. Neither NYPD nor Brown filed criminal charges against him, despite concluding that Allison and Chin Hua had the right of way.

According to a civil suit filed by Chin Hua and Allison’s father, Hsi-Pei Liao, Abu-Zayedeh told police he had consumed two glasses of wine before the crash. Abu-Zayedeh tested positive for alcohol in his bloodstream, the suit says, but his BAC threshold was below the .08 legal limit for driving.

Even with video evidence, unless a driver is drunk, New York City prosecutors rarely charge for injuring and killing pedestrians and cyclists. Brown, for example, filed no charges against a motorist who drove onto a Maspeth sidewalk and hit five children, one of whom died shortly after the crash.

A December 2013 letter to City Council Member Peter Koo from Charles A. Testagrossa [PDF], the assistant district attorney who supervises investigations and prosecutions of fatal crashes in Queens, says the DA didn’t prosecute the driver who killed Allison Liao because he had a green light and stayed at the scene.

Wrote Testagrossa:

As you know, the accident occurred as Allison crossed Main Street in a crosswalk with her grandmother. The motorist who struck her had a valid driver’s license and a green light to make a left turn. The driver remained on the scene and waited for police to arrive. The driver was administered two breathalyzer tests (PBTs) on the scene and the results of the test did not rise to the level of impairment. In fact, the PBT readings were such that, pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL) Sect. 1195(2)(b), they were “prima facie evidence that the ability of such person to operate a motor vehicle was not impaired by the consumption of alcohol and that such person was not in an intoxicated condition.” Additionally, there was no evidence of excessive speed or phone usage at the time of the collision.

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Ken Thompson Secures Manslaughter Conviction for Crash That Killed Driver

In an unusual instance of a sober driver facing penalties for causing a death, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson secured a manslaughter conviction for a crash that killed a second motorist.

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson. Image: ##http://www.ny1.com/content/politics/inside_city_hall/190291/ny1-online--brooklyn-da-candidate-thompson-responds-to-attacks##NY1##

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson. Image: NY1

Last January, days after Thompson took office, Jermaine Filmore ran a red light on Eastern Parkway and hit two other vehicles, according to WABC. One of those cars hit a fourth car and then caught fire. The driver of the vehicle that caught fire, a Lincoln Town Car, was killed.

Thompson filed a host of charges, and this week Filmore was convicted at trial of manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment, reckless driving, speeding, and running a red light, according to court records. Manslaughter, the top charge, is a class C felony, with possible sentences ranging from probation to 15 years in prison.

It is extremely rare for a city district attorney to file a homicide charge against a motorist involved in a fatal crash unless the driver is also charged with DWI or DWAI. As Streetsblog has reported before, prosecutors seem more inclined to pursue serious charges when a driver’s recklessness is highly visible. But it’s virtually impossible to discern which crashes might merit a vigorous prosecution and which might result in a tap on the wrist or, as is virtually always the case, no criminal charges.

Motorists have killed over three dozen Brooklyn pedestrians and cyclists since Thompson succeeded former DA Charles Hynes, and his office is known to have filed homicide charges in only one case, against the man accused of the hit-and-run crash that killed 12-year-old Joie Sellers, and maimed her sister, last July.

Filmore is scheduled to be sentenced in January.

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Chin Joins Victims’ Families to Blast Lax Enforcement of Street Safety Law

Michael Cheung speaks about his mother, who was killed in a Canal Street crosswalk by a driver last month. No charges have been filed against the driver. Photo: Margaret Chin/Twitter

Michael Cheung speaks about his mother, 90-year-old Sau Ying Lee, who was killed in a Canal Street crosswalk by a driver last month. No charges were filed. Photo: Margaret Chin/Twitter

Drivers have killed four pedestrians in and around Chinatown since late August. Despite a new law on the books that could be applied in some of these cases, NYPD and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance have not filed charges against the drivers. Yesterday, Council Member Margaret Chin gathered with victims’ families and community board leaders to demand justice. Chin also announced legislation calling on DOT to study street safety on busy truck routes like Canal Street.

Last month, a driver killed 90-year-old Sau Ying Lee in the crosswalk on Canal Street at Elizabeth Street. No charges have been filed against the driver. “My mom had the right of the way when she was crossing the street. According to the police report, my mom needed only two more steps and she could finish crossing,” said Michael Cheung, Lee’s son. ”New York City law says, ‘Okay, the driver’s not drunk, he’s not under any drug influence. Goodbye. Go and kill another pedestrian.’ That’s the message New York City is sending to the driver.”

Chin pointed to lax enforcement of the Right of Way Law, also known as Section 19-190, which allows for criminal penalties against drivers who strike pedestrians or cyclists with the right of way. “We need to see the law being strongly enforced against drivers who hit pedestrians in the crosswalk,” Chin said. ”At the very least, they should have been held accountable under that clear and simple law.”

NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan has said the department is training all officers, not just crash investigators, to enforce the Right of Way Law, but there is no word on when that process will be complete. So far, enforcement of the law has been inconsistent.

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