Skip to content

Posts from the "New York State DMV" Category

4 Comments

Last Call to Make Sure DMV Properly Refunds Biking Tickets

street_justice2

Last summer, we learned that the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles was charging motorist-only surcharges of $88, and applying motorist-only driver’s license penalty points, to cyclists who pled or were found guilty of traffic violations. Our law firm brought a class action to address DMV’s unlawful penalization of cyclists as if they were drivers.

DMV’s response? Refund a “sample” of the surcharges, limit the same wrongful penalties going forward, and urge the court to dismiss the class action suit as “moot” in light of the agency’s hasty and incomplete effort to make up for its mistakes.

Last week, DMV filed its motion to dismiss the class action.

If you want to help make sure that every cyclist wrongfully penalized by DMV gets refunded the unlawful $88 surcharge and has the unlawful points lifted from his or her driver’s license, read on.

Read more…

16 Comments

DMV Revokes License of Driver Who Killed Allie Liao

Chris Robbins at Gothamist reports that the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles has revoked the license of Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, who struck and killed 3-year-old Allie Liao in a Queens crosswalk in 2013. The decision by administrative law judge Sidney Fuchs reinforces the importance of DMV safety hearings as a venue to ensure that reckless drivers face consequences for killing other people.

Photo: Brad Aaron

On October 6, 2013, Abu-Zayedeh failed to yield to Allie and her grandmother as they crossed Main Street in Flushing with the signal. With Queens District Attorney Richard Brown declining to prosecute and a DMV judge offhandedly tossing the two tickets that had been issued to Abu-Zayedeh, the DMV safety hearing on January 6 was perhaps the last opportunity to hold him accountable for ending Allie Liao’s life.

Fuchs did not render a decision on the day of the hearing, but a DMV spokesperson told Gothamist that the judge revoked Abu-Zayedeh’s license on January 13. The length of the revocation has yet to be announced, reports Robbins.

Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who represents the Liaos, has been raising the profile of DMV safety hearings in a series of Streetsblog posts. He gave this statement in response to the DMV’s decision:

On behalf of the Liao family and the many others who have lost family members to traffic violence, I welcome the news that the New York State DMV has revoked the license of Ahmed Abu-Zayedeh, who struck and killed 3 year old Ally Liao in the crosswalk while she crossed with the right of way, hand-in-hand with her grandmother. This sanction cannot compensate for the harm caused — nothing can. But it affirms our shared understanding that driving is a privilege, not a right, to be forfeited when thoughtless or reckless acts cause grave harm.

Currently, DMV does not appear to be adhering to its policy of holding safety hearings within one year of a fatal crash. The hearing for Abu-Zayedeh happened 15 months after the crash that killed Allie Liao. The safety hearing to review the license of Leonardo Degianni, who killed cyclist Mathieu Lefevre more than three years ago, in October 2011, is scheduled for January 27. Even these delayed hearings may not have happened without public pressure from Vaccaro and victims’ families.

One of the planks in Families For Safe Streets’ DMV reform agenda is to hold these hearings promptly and transparently, with quarterly reports about outcomes. The decision to revoke Abu-Zayedeh’s license is a sign that these reforms matter and can keep dangerous drivers off the streets.

7 Comments

Justice for Mathieu Lefevre

street_justice2

Change is afoot at the New York Department of Motor Vehicles. Following a meeting with advocates for crash victims, the DMV scheduled safety hearings to determine whether three drivers who caused fatal crashes would lose their licenses. The first of the three – concerning the death of three year-old Allison Liao — saw several welcome improvements in the safety hearing process, including in-person testimony from investigating police officers, presentation of video evidence, and an unusual degree of press access.

A second safety hearing, scheduled for January 27, will address the death of artist Mathieu Lefevre, killed in 2011 while cycling home in East Williamsburg. Lefevre’s parents’ demands for transparency and justice from NYPD crash investigators led to increased oversight of NYPD and jump-started the local Vision Zero movement. A DMV order suspending the driver’s license was mysteriously reversed, and the tickets issued to the driver were dismissed by a DMV judge – just as in the Liao case.

Unless NYPD investigators attend the hearing and present the evidence of wrongdoing by the driver, Leonardo Degianni (summarized below), he will receive no penalty or sanction at all — not even a traffic ticket. The Lefevre hearing presents an important test of whether NYPD and DMV are committed to ensuring meaningful consequences for sober reckless drivers who kill.

Degianni’s Involvement in the Crash

Mathieu Lefevre was struck by the driver of a 28-ton crane truck, who left the scene. Based on surveillance video recovered from a nearby warehouse and blood evidence found on the front bumper of the truck, NYPD investigators identified the truck as one driven by Leonardo Degianni. But Degianni has refused to watch the video, and his statements suggest he plans to escape responsibility for the crash by claiming that police misidentified the truck.

The NYPD detectives who investigated the crash can readily prove that the truck was Degianni’s. Although the video is not of the best quality, the detectives who collected it can establish that it contains date and time metadata consistent with the crash. Moreover, investigators can testify that they found blood on the driver’s side of the front bumper of the truck just hours after the crash. Without this testimony, the judge at the hearing will have to make an identification based on pictures and the video:

Read more…

6 Comments

Victims’ Families Demand Changes From DMV at Vigil for Allison Liao

Nearly 100 people attended a vigil last night for Allison Liao and demanded reforms from the state DMV. Photo: Anna Zivarts/Flickr

Nearly 100 people attended a vigil last night in Flushing for Allison Liao, where they demanded reforms from the DMV, including tougher penalties for reckless drivers. Photo: Anna Zivarts/Flickr

Undeterred by the cold, nearly 100 people gathered at the corner of Main Street and Cherry Avenue in Flushing last night to remember 3-year-old Allison Liao, killed by a driver in October 2013. State DMV administrative judges had already dismissed the two tickets issued to the driver, 44-year-old Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, before putting off a judgment at a special safety hearing yesterday. Allison’s parents, Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao, joined other traffic violence victims and their supporters last night to demand policy changes from the DMV.

“A big problem with not having consequences for reckless drivers is that they don’t think they did anything wrong. So these drivers continue to drive the way they did, possibly hurting or killing somebody else,” Tam said. She added that Abu-Zayedeh has refused to watch video of the crash and continues to blame Allison’s death on her grandmother, who was holding her hand in the crosswalk before the crash. ”The DMV could play a major role in helping New York City get to Vision Zero, but so far our experience has been bad.”

The five reforms proposed by Families for Safe Streets are:

  • A mandatory three-month license suspension for serious offenses while driving.
  • Changes to the DMV point system so that higher point values apply to violations where someone is seriously injured or killed, and drivers cannot use adjournments to push points outside the 18-month window and avoid suspension.
  • A mandatory license suspension of at least three months for commercial drivers who accrue six or more penalty points.
  • Mandatory, prompt and publicly-noticed safety hearings at which victims, their families, and NYPD crash investigators can attend, present evidence and make statements, as well as quarterly reporting of aggregate safety hearing outcomes and other statistics.
  • DMV adoption of the equivalent of the Federal Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights for the families of crash victims.

Families for Safe Streets met in November with Karen Rae, who serves as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s deputy transportation secretary, and DMV Executive Deputy Commissioner J. David Sampson to discuss the reforms. The families haven’t heard anything from state officials since then, despite reaching out to Jim Malatras, Cuomo’s director of state operations.

“They promised to get back to us before our hearing, and they knew when the hearing was,” Tam said. ”We’re still seeking out another meeting, and we still want to work to correct these wrongs with the DMV.”

Read more…

23 Comments

DMV Judge Delays Action Against License of Driver Who Killed Allison Liao

Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao speak to reporters after the New York State DMV failed to take action against the driver’s license of the man who killed their daughter Allison. Photo: Brad Aaron

Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao speak to reporters after the New York State DMV failed to take action against the driver’s license of the man who killed their daughter Allison. Photos: Brad Aaron

An administrative law judge for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles today deferred a decision concerning the driver’s license of the motorist who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao.

In a packed hearing room at a DMV office in Jamaica, Sidney Fuchs watched video that showed an SUV driven by Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh run over Allison as she and her grandmother, Chin Hua Liao, crossed Main Street in Flushing, in a crosswalk with a walk signal. And he heard from police investigators, including the officer who summonsed Abu-Zayedeh for failure to yield and careless driving.

“My entire family has been suffering heartbreaking pain,” said Chin Hua, who stopped several times to compose herself as she described the crash via a translator. “It’s better to revoke the driver’s driver’s license.”

Fuchs twice asked Abu-Zayedeh if he wished to testify on his own behalf and, through his attorney, Abu-Zayedeh twice declined to speak. Fuchs rejected a request from Abu-Zayedeh’s attorney to dismiss the video, which Abu-Zayedeh has refused to watch, on the grounds that the person who gave it to police was not at the hearing to vouch for its authenticity.

Fuchs refused to consider documentation offered by the Liao’s attorney, Steve Vaccaro, that Abu-Zayedeh had alcohol in his system an hour after the crash. According to a civil suit filed by Allison’s family, Abu-Zayedeh told police he had consumed two glasses of wine before the collision. He tested positive for alcohol in his bloodstream, the suit says, but his BAC was below the .08 legal limit for driving. ”That would be an issue for some other forum,” said Fuchs. “I prefer not to go into that.”

Fuchs also refused to allow the admission of Abu-Zayedeh’s New Jersey driving record, which Vaccaro said “demonstrates numerous violations,” and indicates that Abu-Zayedeh once surrendered his driver’s license.

“I do have my exhibits and evidence,” said Fuchs at the conclusion of the hour-long hearing. “I’ve heard the testimony. I will reserve decision.”

Read more…

9 Comments

With Opening at DMV, Cuomo Has Opportunity to Lead on Street Safety

With the retirement of Barbara Fiala, the top position at the Department of Motor Vehicles is vacant, giving Governor Andrew Cuomo an opportunity to appoint someone who will use the state’s oversight of driver education, training, and licensing to improve street safety and prevent traffic deaths.

Will Governor Cuomo reform the DMV during his second term? Photo: Diana Robinson/Flickr

Will Governor Cuomo reform the DMV during his second term? Photo: Diana Robinson/Flickr

Fiala, 70, is a Democrat who served as Broome County executive before Cuomo tapped her to head the DMV soon after he took office in 2011. Her last day was Tuesday, according to papers state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office provided to Gannett.

Fiala’s tenure at DMV had several low points on the street safety front.

Months after she arrived at the agency in 2011, Fiala proposed eliminating the eye exam as a requirement for renewing a license. The idea was that drivers would instead “self-certify.” That plan was scrapped under public pressure, including from the governor’s office.

Later, Fiala focused on improving online customer service and increasing organ donation rates, according to a profile that was recently removed from the department’s website. The bio also mentions the DMV commissioner’s role as chair of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee, which distributes federal road safety funds across the state.

In October, Fiala was pulled over in Broome County and given a speeding ticket for driving 47 mph in a 30 mph zone. She mailed in the ticket and pleaded not guilty, according to Gannett. Days earlier, her son, Broome County legislator Anthony Fiala Jr., pleaded guilty to drunken driving after hitting and injuring a Binghamton bicyclist before leaving the scene.

The agency was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons again in November, after a DMV administrative judge dismissed two minor summonses issued to Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha, the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao as she held her grandmother’s hand in a Flushing crosswalk. Video evidence of the crash was not shown at the hearing, which lasted 47 seconds. It’s unclear if the judge even knew that Abu-Zayedeh had killed someone before he threw out the tickets.

After the Liao family learned that Abu-Zayedeha’s tickets had been dismissed, members of Families For Safe Streets met with a top transportation deputy from the governor’s office to talk about DMV reform. The families had expected to meet Fiala at the meeting, but she did not show.

In November, Transportation Alternatives called on Cuomo to replace Fiala with “a safety-minded reformer.” Now that she has retired, Cuomo has a chance to turn the state DMV into a national leader, with rigorous education and licensing requirements for motor vehicle operators to reduce the state’s traffic fatality rate.

Read more…

3 Comments

Justice for Allie Liao

street_justice2

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles faces a critical test on January 6 at 9 a.m.:  Can the agency provide meaningful oversight and consequences for reckless drivers?

That morning, Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, the driver who struck and killed 3-year-old Allie Liao and traumatized her grandmother, is scheduled to appear for a DMV safety hearing. [Disclosure: My firm, the Law Office of Vaccaro and White, represents the Liao family in civil litigation.] At the hearing, Abu-Zayedeh will be questioned under oath by a DMV administrative law judge, and confronted with evidence establishing his recklessness in striking Allie and her grandmother. A high-definition video recording fortuitously made from close range conclusively establishes that Abu-Zayedeh recklessly violated his victims’ right of way:

The case is important for many reasons. Most fundamentally, the Abu-Zayedeh hearing occurs in the opaque near-vacuum of regulatory oversight for killer drivers who avoid criminal charges. Abu-Zayedeh tested positive for alcohol on a chemical test after the fatal crash, but the reading was less than that needed to establish intoxication as a matter of law. Because he didn’t meet this intoxication threshold, and because he was duly licensed and stayed at the scene, Abu-Zayedeh received the usual automatic pass from the criminal justice system.

Read more…

1 Comment

DMV Primer: Why Safety Hearings Should Be Held For Non-Fatal Crashes Too

street_justice2

This is part of a series of posts on the workings of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, its role in deterring or facilitating traffic violence, and agency reforms that could make streets and roads safer.

Last week I wrote about a key shortcoming in the Department of Motor Vehicles safety hearing program: DMV holds these hearings to review drivers’ licenses in only a subset of the crashes resulting in a fatality. But after a conversation I had last week with a representative of the DMV legal department, it appears that potentially any crash victim can bring a complaint seeking a safety hearing to review the license of the driver causing the crash.

DMV rules say that a hearing can be initiated by a “complaint,” and clearly indicate that such hearings may be held following a fatal crash. But the specific procedure to initiate a complaint isn’t spelled out in those rules or elsewhere on the DMV website. It is therefore not surprising that the DMV representative I spoke with told me she has not seen a citizen-initiated safety hearing in recent memory.

But there are powerful reasons why crash victims can and should seek a safety hearing. As detailed almost daily on Streetsblog, the criminal justice system addresses only a small percentage of violent crashes that result in injury or death, often with no more than a slap on the wrist. Even the traffic violation system run by DMV fails to provide meaningful consequences to sober, reckless drivers, as demonstrated following the crashes that killed Allie Liao and Mathieu Lefevre. Safety hearings hold the possibility of a third source of state-authorized sanctions for reckless drivers that (unlike criminal and Traffic Violations Bureau proceedings) does not depend on procedures stacked so heavily in favor of the driver.

There is of course a resource issue at the bottom of this. It would trivialize and overwhelm the safety hearing program if every victim of a dangerous driving maneuver demanded a hearing against the driver. No doubt DMV would invoke a lack of resources to limit hearings to serious cases, and rightfully so. But in many, many cases, the driving behavior responsible for a nonfatal crash is just as reckless as the driving that causes a fatality. There is no principled basis for refusing a hearing in such a case, especially when serious injury results. We should expect and demand that DMV devote sufficient resources to ensure consequences through the safety hearing program for reckless drivers who seriously injure other people, as well as for those who kill.

Read more…

11 Comments

DMV Primer: How the Safety Hearing System Lets Deadly Drivers Off the Hook

street_justice2

This is part of a series of posts on the workings of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, its role in deterring or facilitating traffic violence, and agency reforms that could make streets and roads safer.

Crash victims and their families have learned to expect little from New York City’s police and district attorneys, most of whom reflexively “suspect no criminality” in a traffic crash unless the driver was drunk, unlicensed, or fled the scene. Even the minimal penalty of a traffic ticket issued to a reckless driver who injures or kills often doesn’t stick. When this happens, what option is left, other than a civil trial, to penalize dangerous driving? In the state of New York, the mechanism is supposed to be a DMV “safety hearing,” which could result in a driver’s license being suspended or revoked.

But the safety hearing system does not fulfill this function. One of the key reasons is that safety hearings are held in too few cases. Following the revelation that traffic tickets issued to Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh for killing Allison Liao had been dismissed, DMV claimed that “whenever a fatal accident occurs,” it holds a safety hearing:

Mr. Abu-Zayedeha was found not guilty and those tickets were dismissed on July 1, 2014… However, whenever a fatal accident occurs anywhere in the state, the DMV schedules a special safety hearing. That hearing for Mr. Abu-Zayedeha has been set for January 6.

DMV’s claim is false. In fact, DMV picks and chooses which crashes will result in a safety hearing. Even in fatal crashes, where there is substantial evidence of driver recklessness, DMV may not hold a hearing.

For example, teacher Rasha Shamoon was fatally injured by an SUV driver while bicycling. Although the 21-year-old driver had been convicted of five moving violations during a short period of time prior to the crash, police blamed Shamoon based on the driver’s version of events. Shamoon’s family demanded that the DMV hold a safety hearing to review the driver’s license, but the DMV refused to do so, stating:

Read more…

5 Comments

The New York State DMV Primer: Why Two Hearings for Killer Drivers?

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series of Streetsblog columns and stories on the workings of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, its role in deterring or facilitating traffic violence, and agency reforms that could make streets and roads safer.

Many questions arose when news broke that the motorist who struck and killed 3-year-old Allison Liao had been acquitted by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles of the traffic violations he was charged with — careless driving and failure to yield — but that the same motorist would be appearing at a DMV “safety hearing” in January. Since the DMV threw out all tickets issued to Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, what is the purpose of this second “safety hearing”?

The reasons are in large part historical. There is an English-American criminal procedure tradition stretching back 500 years for how to handle government attempts to punish an alleged wrongdoer. The accused is given certain procedural rights, because historically these types of hearings were fraught with abuse and overreach by the state. The accused has a right to confront witnesses against him or her, to refuse to give testimony against him or herself, to be presumed innocent and force the government to prove the charges.

Even though a hearing on a traffic infraction — what happens when a person receives a traffic ticket for a moving violation — is not a criminal hearing, it is like one and is rooted in the same legal traditions. It is like a criminal hearing in the sense that the government (police, specifically) is accusing and seeking to punish an individual. For lawyers, this triggers all the historical references to what a criminal trial should look like. Not surprisingly, the DMV regulations governing traffic ticket hearings allow a driver the right to counsel and a right not to testify (and therefore a right not to be forced to look at a videotape, as Abu-Zayedeh has refused to do). The driver has a right to force the state to a higher standard of proof — not quite the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of a criminal hearing, but the “clear and convincing” standard, which is also quite high.

Though it is just a traffic ticket hearing, most lawyers and legal policy makers (not to mention most drivers) would agree that these advantages for the “accused” are crucial to the fairness of the process. In essence, the procedures for conducting hearings on traffic infractions are stacked in favor of the accused, based primarily upon tradition, rather than upon the reasons the traditions evolved in the first place (i.e., governments using criminal prosecutions to suppress political dissent).

In contrast, an administrative hearing to review a government license is a product of the 20th century administrative state. It has only been around for about 50 years. There is very little baggage from the pre-modern era regarding the conduct of these hearings. There is also a frank recognition that the stakes are much lower than in the criminal setting — there are no penalties except for the possible suspension or revocation of driving privileges. While the proceeding still must be fair, few would suggest in the licensure review context that the deck should be heavily stacked in favor of the license holder.

Accordingly, the procedures for a DMV safety hearing are very different from those in the traffic ticket hearing. The license holder must answer the questions posed — there is no right to remain silent. Presumably this means the driver can be shown a videotape and required to answer questions about it, if that is what the judge decides to do.

Read more…