When a driver in New York loses his license, it’s up to the state Department of Motor Vehicles to decide when, or if, he gets it back. Based on a recent hearing attended by Streetsblog, the DMV adjudication process at times relies primarily on testimony from drivers involved in fatal crashes, rather than police reports or other evidence.
Anthony Webb hit Clara Heyworth with a Honda Accord in the early morning hours of July 10, 2011, as she crossed Vanderbilt Avenue near Dekalb Avenue to meet her husband, Jacob Stevens. Heyworth, 28, died the next day. Webb, 43, was charged with driving while intoxicated, operation of a motor vehicle by an unlicensed driver, reckless driving, reckless endangerment, and assault, among other violations. But after NYPD bungled its investigation of the crash, all charges were dropped except unlicensed driving and driving without an insurance card, to which Webb pled guilty.
On January 28, Webb appeared before administrative law judge Marc Berger for a hearing to, according to the DMV notice, “determine whether or not any registrations, license and/or driving privileges should be suspended or revoked.” In a cramped, windowless room in a building in the Financial District, Webb sat across a conference table from Stevens and his attorney, Steve Vaccaro. (Disclosure: Vaccaro’s law firm is a Streetsblog sponsor.)
Berger set the tone right away. Having only a seven-page police report to work from — an NYPD witness failed to show — Berger did not know where the crash had occurred. When Stevens, who saw it happen, began to tell him the location, Berger snapped at Vaccaro, “He’s not to say anything. You’re strictly observers, both of you, unless I allow you to ask questions.” Minutes later, as Vaccaro looked at his notes, Berger said: “Please stop shuffling papers. Don’t touch another paper. Put it in your lap or whatever you have to do.”
By contrast, Berger’s attitude toward Webb was, for the most part, casual, if not cordial. More important, Berger looked to Webb to fill in the gaps in the NYPD report.
Berger asked Webb for a forensic analysis of the crash and the crash scene — how fast Webb was driving, the presence of street lights, whether cars were parked on the street, which direction Heyworth was walking, where she landed after the collision, and how the car was damaged.
When Webb hesitated, or struggled to answer, Berger asked leading questions, or filled in the answers himself: ”What did you do when you heard the thump, if anything? Brake?”
Though Webb told Berger that Heyworth was crossing from his right, according to Stevens she was crossing from his left. But Webb had the final say on how the crash occurred. After Webb gave his version of events, Berger said, “Okay, that’s fine. That makes sense. I just need answers, and it doesn’t, you know, I’m not looking to trip you up.”
Berger even relied on Webb to tell him if he had been drinking. When a breath test was administered an hour after the crash, it indicated Webb had a blood alcohol content of .07, according a lawsuit filed by Stevens against NYPD. Prosecutors working for former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes dropped the drunk driving charge against Webb because the 88th Precinct had not calibrated the breath test machine for four years. The machine was later found to be working properly, and prosecutors were publicly admonished by a judge for not pursuing the charge.
Webb told Berger, however, that he was found not guilty of drunk driving, and that he had consumed no alcohol before the crash. This detail was accepted at face value until Vaccaro was permitted to ask questions toward the end of the hearing.