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Families for Safe Streets Meets With Cuomo Rep to Talk DMV Reforms

In a meeting with representatives from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration Tuesday, members of Families for Safe Streets called for reforms to New York State Department of Motor Vehicles protocols, with the goal of discouraging reckless driving and obtaining some measure of justice for crash victims and their families.

New York State DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala did not attend a Tuesday meeting with family members of traffic violence victims. Photo: NYS DMV

New York State DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala did not attend a Tuesday meeting with family members of traffic violence victims. Photo: NYS DMV

Karen Rae, Cuomo’s deputy transportation secretary, met with relatives of crash victims at the governor’s Manhattan office. The meeting was arranged by Congresswoman Grace Meng [PDF], and was prompted by news that the DMV voided both traffic tickets issued by NYPD to the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao in Queens in 2013.

A recording obtained by WNYC reveals that the administrative judge rushed through the hearing and declared the driver, 44-year-old Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, ”not guilty” in a matter of seconds. The video that captured the collision was never screened.

Allison’s parents, Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao, attended yesterday’s meeting. Also present were Amy Cohen, mother of Sammy Cohen Eckstein; Kevin Sami, whose father was killed in a crash; and attorney Steve Vaccaro. J. David Sampson, the agency’s executive deputy commissioner, represented the DMV. DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala was expected to attend but was not there.

Officials and advocates discussed the January DMV “safety hearing” scheduled for Abu-Zayedeh, as well as last January’s hearing for the driver who killed Brooklyn pedestrian Clara Heyworth, when a DMV administrative judge relied mainly on the motorist’s own testimony to determine whether or not he would be allowed to drive legally again.

Families for Safe Streets presented the following recommendations to DMV:

  • A mandatory three-month license suspension for serious offenses while driving, including (a) hit and run; (b) aggravated unlicensed operation; (c) failure to use due care (VTL 1146); and (d) striking someone with the right of way (per NYC Administrative Code Section 19-190).
  • Reform the DMV point system so that higher point values apply to violations where someone is seriously injured or killed; prevent drivers from using adjournments to push points outside the 18-month window and avoid suspension.
  • Greater accountability for commercial drivers, enforced by a mandatory three-month or longer license suspension upon accrual of 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; quarterly reporting of aggregate safety hearing outcomes and other statistics.
  • DMV’s adoption of the equivalent of the Federal Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights for victims’ families at traffic ticket hearings related to fatal crashes.

Read more…

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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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NY State DMV Dismisses Tickets of Driver Who Killed Allie Liao [Updated]

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles dismissed summonses for failure to yield and careless driving issued to the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao in 2013. Image via ##https://twitter.com/KeeganNYC/status/530515713405231105##@KeeganNYC##

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles dismissed summonses for failure to yield and careless driving issued to the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao in 2013. Image via @KeeganNYC

Update: Streetsblog has filed a freedom of information request for documents related to the DMV’s dismissal of tickets issued by NYPD to Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh.

An administrative law judge with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles threw out tickets issued by NYPD to the driver who ran over 3-year-old Allison Liao as she and her grandmother walked hand in hand in a Queens crosswalk.

The driver, identified by police as 44-year-old Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, was turning left from Cherry Avenue onto Main Street in Flushing when he hit Allison on the afternoon of October 6, 2013. Though NYPD and the media initially said Allison “broke free” from her grandmother, video of the crash showed the pair walking together as Abu-Zayedeh approached from behind, striking Allison and pulling her underneath the SUV.

Abu-Zayedeh was summonsed for failure to yield and failure to exercise due care. Neither NYPD nor Queens District Attorney Richard Brown filed criminal charges against him for striking Allison. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Brown described the accident as a ‘tragedy’ and said he wouldn’t bring charges.”

On Thursday Allison’s parents, Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao, learned that the DMV dismissed both tickets. The revelation came during a deposition of Abu-Zayedeh, according to attorney Steve Vaccaro, who is representing Tam and Liao in a civil suit. Allison’s family was not contacted by the DMV.

Streetsblog has reported before that, at least in some cases, the DMV adjudication process relies mainly on testimony from drivers involved in fatal crashes, not police reports or other evidence.

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Senior Struck By Unlicensed Driver in UES Crosswalk Has Died

Keiko Ohnishi was hit in a crosswalk by an accused unlicensed driver. The driver was charged with unlicensed operation and failure to yield but was not charged under the city's new Right of Way Law. Image: Google Maps

Keiko Ohnishi was hit in a crosswalk by a driver who was charged with unlicensed operation and failure to yield but was not charged under the city’s new Right of Way Law. Image: Google Maps

A senior struck by an allegedly unlicensed motorist in an Upper East Side crosswalk this September has died from her injuries, according to NYPD’s monthly traffic crash report and WNYC’s Mean Streets project. Though the driver was ticketed for failure to yield, he was not charged under the new Vision Zero law that makes it a crime for motorists to harm pedestrians who have the right of way.

At around 9:47 on the morning of September 4, Kristin Rodriguez, 25, drove a minivan into 66-year-old Keiko Ohnishi as she walked with a cane across Madison Avenue at E. 98th Street, near Mount Sinai Hospital, the Daily News reported.

From the Post:

“[The van] hit her and she [flew] up and back down and he kept on going with her under him,” said Tracy Molloy, 39, who was waiting for the bus when she saw the horrific accident.

“He was trying to make the light like every New York City driver,” she said.

“He drove completely over her, over her legs. He must have felt the bump and heard people scream so he stopped,” said another witness Neud Clermont. “Blood was coming out of her ears.

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

Ohnishi was admitted to Mount Sinai in critical condition. She succumbed to her injuries, NYPD confirmed.

Rodriguez, whose van reportedly had North Carolina plates, was summonsed for failure to yield and charged with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation, according to NYPD and court records. He was not charged under city code Section 19-190, known as the Right of Way Law, which made it a misdemeanor to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. The law was adopted as part of a package of Vision Zero legislation intended to reduce traffic injuries and deaths.

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NYPD Training Precinct Cops to Charge Drivers Who Violate Right of Way Law

All 35,000 of New York City’s uniformed police officers will be trained to file charges against drivers who violate the new Right of Way Law, according to NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan.

NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan. Image: NYPD

NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan. Photo: NYPD

The law, also known as Section 19-190, established misdemeanor penalties for drivers who strike and injure pedestrians or cyclists with the right of way, part of a Vision Zero legislative package Mayor de Blasio signed earlier this year. Now, a reckless driver who harms someone else could end up with a permanent criminal record instead of facing no meaningful consequences, which has typically been the case even when a motorist inflicts grievous injury or death.

Since the law went into effect in August, however, charges have remained scarce. Most citations for violating the Right of Way Law have been filed by the Collision Investigation Squad, which is staffed by fewer than 30 officers and can handle only a small fraction of crashes that result in serious injury. To date, only one reported Right of Way violation has been issued by a precinct officer. Since precinct officers are far more numerous than CIS investigators and are usually the first to arrive at a crash scene, the success of the Right of Way Law hinges on equipping them to enforce it.

I asked Chan about how the department enforces the Right of Way Law after the mayor’s press conference yesterday on the city’s new 25 mph speed limit. Here is his response, in full:

We’re in the process. We’re working with our police academy, and we’re taking a look. Because we have a large [department] — 35,000 officers are going to be doing the enforcement on that area — it’s not only on the level of CIS. We want to make sure that they have the proper guidance and the proper protocol for that.

Right now, it’s running through the course of channels, the legal bureau within the police department. And then ultimately, we will touch base also with the DA’s offices, because again, we want to make sure that we get it out there, and we get it out there correctly, because it’s a very important law that will make an impact out there. Again, with 35,000 people, we don’t want to get variations, different interpretations, and that’s part of why it’s important for us to make sure we get our people on board and get it done correctly.

I asked to confirm that precinct-level officers will be enforcing the 19-190 law. “Yes. Yes. Yes. Absolutely,” Chan said. Streetsblog has filed a freedom of information request for more information on how the department is training officers to enforce Section 19-190.

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DA Cy Vance: $250 Fine for Motorist Accused of Deliberately Striking Cyclist

Manhattan DA Cy Vance dropped assault charges against Jose Henriquez, the hit-and-run driver accused of intentionally striking a cyclist with an SUV. Henriquez was allowed to plead to leaving the scene and was fined $250. Vance photo: Brad Aaron. Henriquez photo via Facebook

Manhattan DA Cy Vance dropped assault charges against Jose Henriquez, a hit-and-run driver accused of intentionally striking a cyclist with an SUV. Henriquez was allowed to plead to leaving the scene and was fined $250. Vance photo: Brad Aaron. Henriquez photo via Facebook

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance dropped assault charges against a hit-and-run driver accused of intentionally ramming a cyclist with an SUV, allowing the defendant to plead guilty to leaving the scene and pay a small fine, according to court documents and the victim’s attorney, Steve Vaccaro.

Vaccaro says the case was one of several handled by his firm, Vaccaro and White, in which Vance’s office declined or otherwise failed to pursue assault charges against motorists and pedestrians who attacked cyclists or purposefully hit them with motor vehicles.

According to Vaccaro and a witness affidavit [PDF], at around 5:00 p.m. on July 13, 2013, Michael (not his actual name) was riding his bike on Avenue B on the Lower East Side. Avenue B is a narrow two-way street with no bike lanes and parking on both sides. To avoid being doored, Michael was riding in the center of his lane. When a motorist approached Michael from behind, tailgating and honking, he responded by flipping the driver off.

Approaching the intersection of Avenue B and E. 13th Street, Michael slowed for a red light. According to the affidavit, the driver, still behind him, accelerated, striking the back of Michael’s bike and flipping him over the handlebars, causing him to hit his head on the ground. With Michael in the street bleeding from his face and head, the motorist swerved around him and attempted to drive off. A second motorist on the opposite side of the intersection tried to block the way, but the SUV driver went around the vehicle and left the scene.

Witnesses noted the SUV’s plate number, and the driver was identified by NYPD as 33-year-old Jose Henriquez, of Queens.

Michael suffered lacerations to his face. Despite his injuries and the circumstances of the crash, NYPD and prosecutors with Vance’s office initially charged Henriquez only with leaving the scene. “We went out and got the witnesses to establish that it was a deliberate strike, and to the DA’s credit, they added assault charges,” says Vaccaro. “Now, inexplicably and without justification, they have dropped them.”

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Maximum Penalty for Cab Driver Who Killed Cooper Stock: 15 Days and $750

The cab driver who killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock last January was charged this month with failure to exercise due care, a traffic infraction that carries a maximum 15-day jail sentence and a small fine.

Cooper Stock. Photo: Barron Lerner via ##http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/treat-reckless-driving-like-drunk-driving/##New York Times##

Cooper Stock. Photo: Barron Lerner via New York Times

According to court records and the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, an arrest warrant was issued for Koffi Komlani on October 1. He was arraigned in criminal court on October 7, pled not guilty, and was released on his own recognizance.

Here’s how the Daily News described the latest developments in the case, in a story that ran today:

The cabbie who hit and killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock, as the child crossed the street with his father, has been charged in the boy’s death, the Daily News has learned.

Driver Koffi Komlani was arrested Oct. 8 and charged with failure to exercise due care by the Manhattan district attorney, sources said Thursday.

It’s common for the tabloids to make it seem as if law enforcers are seeing justice done for victims of traffic violence when, in actuality, the motorist in question faces relatively mild consequences. The Daily News story looks like another example.

Failure to exercise due care is a violation of VTL 1146 — Hayley and Diego’s Law. Though Komlani was arraigned in criminal court, this is a traffic violation, not a criminal offense. Drivers summonsed for careless driving are subject to jail time of up to 15 days, fines of up to $750, a license suspension of up to six months, and a mandatory drivers’ ed course. These are maximum penalties. The minimum is no penalty at all.

Prosecutors with Vance’s office told Cooper’s family last spring that they would not be filing criminal charges against Komlani.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission opted not to renew Komlani’s probationary hack license when it expired in July. Vance’s office said the judge suspended his drivers license pending the outcome of the case. Komlani’s next court appearance is scheduled for December.

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Council Members Press NYPD to Enforce the Law in Death of Sui Leung

Under a new Vision Zero law, a driver who critically injures or kills a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way is guilty of a misdemeanor. But nearly two months after it took effect, there is no evidence NYPD is applying the law, known as Section 19-190, as Mayor de Blasio and the City Council intended. This week, three council members expressly asked NYPD to charge a motorist who killed a senior in Manhattan, and the response from NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan has troubling implications about how police are enforcing the new law.

Image: NBC

On the afternoon of September 25, a commercial van driver hit 82-year-old Sui Leung as she crossed in the crosswalk at Kenmare and Elizabeth Streets. Leung was pronounced dead at Downtown Hospital. NYPD would not identify the driver, but the van belonged to Party Rental Ltd. of Teterboro, New Jersey.

“Police did not suspect any criminality and the driver was not charged,” the Daily News reported. NYPD told Streetsblog the driver had a green light. But a visit to the intersection showed that there is no exclusive turn phase at Kenmare and Elizabeth — meaning Leung would have had a walk signal when the driver had a green, and would therefore have had the right of way.

“She had the right of way,” said City Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents the area where the crash occurred. ”The driver is supposed to yield to pedestrians.”

Chin told Streetsblog her staff has spoken with Leung’s family. ”From what we know of Ms. Leung, she’s an active senior,” said Chin. “She goes to the senior center every day. She walks from her home to Chinatown. The family is also very upset about what happened.”

“It’s just so clear that she had the right of way and the driver needs to be prosecuted,” Chin said. “You’re talking about someone getting killed.”

On Wednesday, Chin and other council members sent a letter to Chan [PDF]. Based on the details provided in the NYPD crash report, which according to Chin showed Leung “unquestionably did nothing wrong,” she urged NYPD to file charges under Section 19-190. The letter was co-signed by Council Member Rosie Mendez, who represents the area where Leung lived, and Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the council transportation committee.

Read more…

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Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson: $500 Fine for Unlicensed Driver Who Killed Senior

The driver who killed Brooklyn pedestrian Maude Savage was charged for failure to yield and driving without a license, but Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson did not charge him with criminal negligence under the "rule of two." Crash still via Daily News. Thompson image: NY1

The driver who killed Brooklyn pedestrian Maude Savage last year was charged for failure to yield and driving without a license, but Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson did not charge him with criminal negligence under the so-called “rule of two.” Crash still via Daily News. Thompson image: NY1

An unlicensed driver was sentenced to a small fine and probation after he ran over and killed a Brooklyn senior who was crossing with the right of way, per the terms of a plea deal with District Attorney Ken Thompson. Though the driver was charged with committing two traffic offenses at the time of the crash, he was not charged with criminal negligence under the so-called “rule of two.”

Maude Savage, 72, waited for the signal before entering the crosswalk at Sutter and Euclid Avenues last November 25. She was mid-way across the street when Robert Brown drove a commercial van into her. Video of the crash shows that Brown barely slowed as he made a left turn, leaving Savage no time to clear his path. She died from her injuries.

Brown was charged by then-DA Charles Hynes with aggravated unlicensed operation, a misdemeanor that stipulates that he drove without a license when he knew or should have known he didn’t have one. He was also ticketed for failure to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, according to court records.

Theoretically, the crash that killed Maude Savage should have triggered the “rule of two,” case law precedent that holds that a New York State motorist who is breaking at least two traffic laws at the time of a crash may be charged with criminal negligence. New York City prosecutors regularly cite the rule of two as an obstacle to charging motorists for killing, but routinely fail to bring charges after crashes involving two or more traffic violations. True to form, Hynes and Thompson did not upgrade charges against Brown.

Aggravated unlicensed operation is seemingly the default charge against unlicensed drivers who kill New York City pedestrians. It’s the same charge that is applied against unlicensed drivers who turn without signaling. In June Brown pled guilty to unlicensed operation in the second degree, a charge that may be applied when a defendant is caught driving without a license after prior convictions for unlicensed driving, or when the defendant’s license was previously suspended or revoked pursuant to a drug or alcohol related driving offense.

Second degree unlicensed operation is an unclassified misdemeanor with penalties including jail time, probation, and a fine of not less than $500. According to court records, Brown was sentenced last week to a $500 fine and two years probation.

As of August it is a misdemeanor for a driver to injure or kill a New York City pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. Motorists have killed at least 13 pedestrians since the law took effect, and NYPD has applied the law once.