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Posts from the "Traffic Justice" Category

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Wrist Slap for DWI Killer After Brooklyn DAs Decline to Charge Homicide

A convicted drunk driver was sentenced this week to probation, a nominal fine, and a six-month license suspension for killing a Brooklyn pedestrian.

Roxana Gomez

Shortly after midnight on July 5, 2013, 27-year-old Roxana Gomez was walking at Flatbush Avenue and St. Marks Avenue when Eric Nesmith hit her with a BMW sedan, according to witness accounts and the Post. Gomez, a Columbia grad student who worked for the human rights group MADRE, suffered massive head injuries and was administered CPR by an emergency room nurse who lived near the scene. She died on July 10.

The Post reported that Nesmith, then 25, of Newark, had a BAC of .126 — far above the .08 legal limit for driving — and ”admitted to cops he had consumed up to six Coronas” while celebrating Independence Day before the crash. FDNY first responders said he was speeding. Yet Nesmith was not charged with homicide by former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes or his successor Ken Thompson.

“An accident reconstruction expert concluded that alcohol was not a contributing factor in the death of the pedestrian in this case,” a spokesperson for Thompson’s office told Streetsblog in January.

Through a legal aid attorney, Nesmith pled guilty to operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, an unclassified misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail, three years probation, and a $1,000 fine. On Tuesday, Judge Raymond Rodriguez sentenced him to three years probation and fined him $500, with no jail time, according to court records.

For killing Roxana Gomez while driving drunk, Eric Nesmith had his license suspended for six months, the default penalty mandated by state law, and six months with an interlock ignition device installed on his car.

Outrageous as it is, the outcome of this case is not at all unusual. New York State law and the courts effectively favor DWI killers. To get a vehicular homicide conviction, prosecutors must prove that impairment caused a motorist to operate a vehicle in a manner that caused death. Due to the vagaries of state code, this burden of proof is often insurmountable, and it is therefore common for NYC prosecutors to decline to bring homicide charges against drunk drivers who kill pedestrians.

Nesmith is due back in court in June.

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NYPD Denies Access to Confiscated Bikes, Including Those of Crash Victims

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As seasoned observers of the department’s dealings with bicyclists know, NYPD has long enjoyed taking our bikes. Following the 2004 Republican National Convention, NYPD clipped locks and took bikes of persons suspected of associating with Critical Mass, resulting in a successful federal lawsuit that enjoined the practice as a constitutional violation. During a 2010 visit to New York by President Obama, NYPD without notice confiscated bikes wholesale along the president’s route, failing to tag the bikes and making it extremely difficult for their owners to reclaim them. Now, NYPD has taken things to the next level by shuttering its bike pound for a year and a half, and refusing to allow owners to claim their bicycles indefinitely.

The problem came to light during efforts by the Lefevre family to retrieve the bicycle of fatal crash victim Mathieu Lefevre. [Disclosure: Steve Vaccaro of Vaccaro & White is counsel to the Lefevre family.] NYPD has moved to quash a court-ordered subpoena to produce the bicycle Lefevre rode the night he was killed. This comes on the heels of well-documented foot-dragging by the NYPD in failing to respond to the Lefevres’ requests for information in the immediate aftermath of their son’s death, drawing extensive press attention, from Streetsblog to the New York Times. The Lefevres ultimately sued the NYPD to get the investigative documents to which they were entitled, resulting in judicial criticism that NYPD “needlessly delayed handing over documents and other materials” in a manner “agonizing” to the family.

In this latest example of NYPD stonewalling, the Lefevres issued a subpoena to the NYPD to produce the bike for use as evidence against the driver. The Lefevres’ papers state that the bike is needed to reconstruct the manner in which the crash occurred, and to test the driver’s claim that he was unaware that he had struck Lefevre when he left the scene of the crash. A picture of the bicycle taken by police the night of the crash shows extensive damage:

HWY_1483

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Bronx DWI Pedestrian Killer Gets 90 Days and Six-Month License Suspension

A judge sentenced a convicted drunk driver to just 90 days in jail and a six-month license suspension for killing a pedestrian in the Bronx.

Thomas Riley, 23, was crossing East Fordham Road near Bathgate Avenue at around 4:20 a.m. on March 20, 2011, when 48-year-old Seth Johnson struck and killed him with a minivan, according to a Post story published the day after the crash.

Victim Thomas Riley and his son Julien. Photo via Daily News

Victim Thomas Riley and his son Julien. Photo via Daily News

Riley worked as a barber and had a young son. “My family is now torn apart because a drunk driver took his life away,” Riley’s sister told the Post.

Johnson was charged by Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson with manslaughter, homicide, speeding, reckless driving, leaving the scene, and separate counts of driving while under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Last December a jury acquitted Johnson of manslaughter, homicide, and leaving the scene, finding him guilty on one count of driving drunk and one count of driving while impaired by drugs and alcohol.

“As a prosecutor, I accept the verdict of the jury,” Bronx vehicular crime chief Joe McCormack told Streetsblog after the trial. “We brought what we felt were appropriate charges, and we did the best we could trying the case.”

Johnson faced a year in jail, but on March 28, Judge Nicholas J. Iacovetta sentenced him to 90 days, three years probation, and $870 in fines, according to court records. His license was suspended for six months. So unless the New York State DMV takes action to keep him off the road, Johnson could driving again before long.

From the Daily News:

“He will be in jail for less than three months and I have to live with a life sentence,” the victim’s mother, Aurea Rivera, said after Bronx Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Iacovetta read the decision. “I want the laws changed so that no one else has to suffer like us.”

Rivera, joined in the courtroom by nearly a dozen friends and relatives, read a statement before the court and called on Mayor de Blasio and other elected officials to toughen vehicular manslaughter and drunk driving laws.

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Alan Dershowitz: Penalize Reckless Drivers Before They Kill

Noted attorney Alan Dershowitz says that to dramatically reduce traffic deaths and injuries in NYC, police and prosecutors must crack down on all dangerous drivers, not just those who kill while driving drunk.

In a Daily News op-ed, Dershowitz says he has been rebuffed by 911 operators when he reports reckless drivers. The reason, he says, is police aren’t interested in handling such calls unless a crash has occurred.

Dershowitz’s sister-in-law was killed by a driver in Chelsea in 2011. Ian Clement left the scene after running Marilyn Dershowitz over with a U.S. Postal Service truck as she was cycling with her husband. Though the crash was captured on video, a jury acquitted Clement of hit-and-run.

Dershowitz writes:

It is this combination — little concern about reckless drivers who haven’t killed yet, and legal difficulties in prosecuting drivers who have — that has likely contributed to the epidemic of pedestrians deaths in New York, resulting in a sizable increase in 2013 from 2012. The law, and those who are supposed to enforce it, are not doing their job in deterring dangerous driving because reckless drivers have little to fear from persisting in their potentially lethal behavior. This breakdown reflects a larger moral conundrum: How should the law deal with conduct that causes lethal results in only a small percentage of cases?

Dershowitz says punishing a relatively small number of reckless drivers for killing people does not deter others from driving recklessly, “because few drivers expect to kill and even fewer expect to be successfully prosecuted if they do.”

“Clearly,” he writes, “the law would buy more deterrent bang for the buck if it vigorously prosecuted every reckless driver, regardless of whether they happen to kill.”

Dershowitz offers a few suggestions for increasing enforcement, like making penalties more severe for deadly crashes in which speeding or texting are a factor. He says more frequent ticketing and higher fines for dangerous moving violations might also help.

Dershowitz, who made his name as a civil libertarian, doesn’t explicitly endorse automated enforcement, though he acknowledges that traffic cameras are an important tool. Penalizing all reckless driving behavior might be seen as “governmental action that compromises privacy for prevention,” he says, but he doesn’t think it’s much of a trade-off.

Are these costs worth the benefits of a more proactive and preventive approach? When it comes to dangerous driving, where privacy interests are minimal and safety concerns considerable, the answer is yes.

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As Lucian Merryweather’s Family Grieves, Charges Against His Killer Reduced


Lucian Merryweather was one of at least 10 children age 12 and under killed by a New York City motorist in the last 12 months. As his family tries to cope with his death and joins others in demanding an end to traffic violence, court records say charges were downgraded against the driver who killed Lucian and injured his younger brother, Theodore.

“Our life the way it was is over,” said Lucian’s father, Gregory Merryweather, in a video by Sam Hagens, Leon Mastik, and Pieter Munnik, posted last week on The Nabe, a site produced by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. ”So ‘normal’ isn’t really the point anymore. It’s about finding another way to exist.”

“When you step back and look at it, you are surprised that that is your new community. You never envision yourself being one of those people.”

Anthony Byrd, 59, was indicted last month for the November 2 crash, which also injured a third pedestrian. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson described what happened in a February 14 press release:

According to the indictment, video surveillance showed that on November 2, 2013, at 12:49 PM, Byrd drove his 2000 Ford Expedition westbound along Dekalb Avenue. As Byrd made a left hand turn onto Clermont Avenue, he narrowly avoided hitting two pedestrians who were walking their dog. Byrd’s S.U.V. then swerved to the right and onto a sidewalk where he struck the exterior of a restaurant, The Black Iris, located at 228 Dekalb Avenue, and a parked vehicle. Pedestrians can be seen on the video running as the vehicle made a U-turn onto the sidewalk.

Byrd then accelerated his vehicle in a diagonal direction into oncoming traffic on Dekalb Avenue. The vehicle then struck a westbound car while driving in the wrong direction along Dekalb Avenue. According to the indictment, Byrd then veered off Dekalb Avenue and onto Clermont Avenue, where he struck and broke the leg of pedestrian Elaine Driscoll, 29. Byrd then hit 4-year-old and 9-year-old brothers who were walking down the street with their mother, Anna Kovel.

Lucian was pinned under the SUV and died at the scene. Theodore was severely injured, according to the press release.

“The death of this innocent 9-year-old child and the severe injuries to his 4-year-old brother were truly tragic and avoidable and we will seek to hold the defendant accountable for his actions,” Thompson said in the release. “The people of Brooklyn must be free to walk down the streets of our borough without fear that they may be run over or injured by a motorist driving dangerously.”

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Streets of NYC a Little Safer Today Thanks to Judge, NYPD, and Cy Vance

There’s one less reckless driver on the streets of New York today thanks to NYPD, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, and Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Jill Konviser.

Andy Tang: "I was exceeding the speed limit although I did not hit 100 miles per hour."

Adam Tang: “I was exceeding the speed limit although I did not hit 100 miles per hour.”

After Adam Tang posted a video of himself speeding around Manhattan, he was tracked down by NYPD. Tang’s car was taken away, and Vance charged him with reckless driving and second degree reckless endangerment, according to court records.

Under New York State law, “A person is guilty of reckless endangerment in the second degree when he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person.” In lay terms, reckless endangerment requires proof that a driver was aware of a risk of seriously injuring someone else, says attorney Steve Vaccaro. Speeding was the leading cause of NYC traffic fatalities in 2012.

Second degree reckless endangerment is a class A misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail. According to the Daily News, Tang’s attorney Greg Gomez rejected a plea deal for 60 days in jail and 15 days of community service.

Tang pled not guilty in court today and asked for his license and passport to be returned. But Judge Konviser agreed with ADA Mary Weisgerber that Tang should not be driving.

“He videotaped himself circumnavigating Manhattan at a high rate of speed. He admits doing this,” Weisgerber said.

“He certainly should not have his license back.”

Konviser agreed, noting his “conduct, if true” was “extremely dangerous.”

“I don’t think he should have his passport or his license,” she said.

Gomez argued that charges would probably have been reduced or dismissed “if not for the ‘sensational and exciting video’ that ‘people loved and watched hundreds of thousands of times’” — a video otherwise known as “the evidence.”

“I was exceeding the speed limit although I did not hit 100 miles per hour,” Tang reportedly told police after he was arrested last September. Since a pedestrian hit by a driver traveling at 40 miles per hour has a 15 percent chance of surviving, Tang wouldn’t have to get anywhere close to 100 to pose a deadly risk.

“A jury will find what he did was not reckless,” said Gomez. While it’s certainly possible that a jury will side with his client, Tang’s behavior endangered lives, and NYPD and Vance deserve credit for keeping him off the streets for as long as they can. Huzzah.

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DA Dan Donovan: Six Months for SI Hit-and-Run Driver Who Killed 5 Year Old

A Staten Island motorist who fled the scene after hitting a mother and two young children, fatally injuring the woman’s 5-year-old son, will serve six months in jail under a plea deal from District Attorney Daniel Donovan.

Kyrillos Gendy was killed by hit-and-run driver John Sanjurjo. Sanjurjo was not charged by Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan for killing Kyrillos or injuring his mother and sister, and will serve just six months in jail.

John Sanjurjo ran over Kyrillos Gendy, his 7-year-old sister Gabriella, and 35-year-old Erieny Thomas at around 8:25 p.m. on August 9, 2013, as they crossed Richmond Road. Kyrillos had “severe internal bleeding and no pulse” when he arrived at Staten Island University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, according to the Times. Gabriella suffered a broken ankle, and Ms. Thomas “had a gash on her face.”

Mr. [Adam] Gendy [Kyrillos's cousin] said the family had not yet told Gabriella what had happened. “That’s a conversation we’re trying to figure out,” he said. “The mom is just an emotional wreck right now. She barely speaks.”

Adam Gendy told the Times he last saw Kyrillos an hour before the crash. “He hugged me, gave me a kiss. He’s very innocent, very full of energy, very loving. Loved Marvel superheroes. Could name you all the superheroes.”

Sanjurjo, accompanied by an attorney, waited until the next day to turn himself in to police. ”Sanjurjo’s 2013 Mercedes-Benz 350 matched the vehicle description, including dents in the hood from the impact,” the Daily News reported. “The force of the impact sent Kyrillos flying through the air. Bits of scattered food that Kyrillos’ family was carrying were found on the car.”

On the day of Kyrillos’s funeral, Sanjurjo, 33, was arraigned and freed on $35,000 bail. He was charged with one count of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death, and two counts of leaving the scene of an accident resulting in injury. ”You got the wrong guy, man,” Sanjurjo told reporters outside the courthouse.

A handful of times in recent memory, New York City district attorneys have brought homicide charges against sober drivers in fatal crashes. But Donovan did not charge Sanjurjo with assault or homicide for injuring Kyrillos’s mom and sister and leaving the boy to die in the street.

New York State law gives drivers an incentive to leave the scene of a serious crash. For one thing, the penalty for hit-and-run is less severe than the penalty for drunk driving. And under current law the decision to issue charges for leaving the scene rests on the ability to divine driver intent, lending credibility to the “I didn’t see him” defense. Cleaning up hit-and-run laws is one of the goals in the de Blasio administration’s Vision Zero plan.

On February 28, Sanjurjo pled guilty to the top leaving the scene charge, a class D felony that carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail, according to court records and the Staten Island Advance.

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Will the New York DMV Keep an Unlicensed Killer on the Road?

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.

The New York State DMV may put the man who killed Clara Heyworth while driving without a license back behind the wheel. Photo via New York Times

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.

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Will Other NYC DAs Join Cy Vance in Getting Behind Vision Zero?

All five New York City district attorneys were invited to Monday’s City Council Vision Zero hearing, according to the office of transportation committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez. Yet Manhattan DA Cy Vance was the only one who participated.

Due to time constraints, Vance Chief Assistant DA Karen Friedman Agnifilo was not able to read all of her remarks [PDF], which included a number of substantive recommendations for city and state lawmakers, as well as NYPD. We’ve summarized those recommendations below, but first: There has been a lot of talk about how Vision Zero’s success hinges in no small part on Mayor de Blasio’s ability to sway Albany. While this is as true as it is troubling, the role of city DAs should not be overlooked.

Not only does Vision Zero depend on prosecutors to hold reckless motorists accountable, district attorneys can be powerful messengers, and their support could be key to the city’s efforts to lower the speed limit, expand automated enforcement, and implement other initiatives that require action by the state legislature. If you’re a New York City voter who cares about street safety, it wouldn’t hurt to let your DA know you are taking note of his involvement, or lack thereof, in Vision Zero.

Here are Vance’s recommendations, beginning with those that fall under the purview of the mayor, the City Council, and NYPD:

  • Broaden NYPD investigations to include crashes that result in “serious physical injury.” While NYPD announced a year ago that the department would no longer only investigate crashes where the victim was killed or “likely to die,” the current “critical injury” standard still limits investigations to “a patient either receiving CPR, in respiratory arrest, or requiring and receiving life sustaining ventilator/circulatory support,” as defined under FDNY guidelines. Serious physical injury, Agnifilo said, is injury “which creates a substantial risk of death, or which causes death or serious and protracted disfigurement, protracted impairment of health or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ.” If NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad “had the capacity to respond to all cases that would potentially result in either serious physical injury or death,” she said, DAs “would be called to more crash scenes, allowing prosecutors to make appropriate charging decisions.”
  • Include DAs in TrafficStat. Advocates expect NYPD’s traffic analysis program, based on CompStat, to play a role in Vision Zero. While DOT participates in weekly TrafficStat meetings, according to Agnifilo, city DAs have not previously been included. Agnifilo said that bridging this communication gap would help prosecutors build cases. “For instance,” said Agnifilo, “unlike the NYPD Highway Patrol, most precincts in Manhattan do not regularly calibrate their preliminary breath testing instruments. As a result, we cannot seek to introduce the readings from these instruments at trial.” This is what happened when NYPD botched the investigation into the death of Brooklyn pedestrian Clara Heyworth, and her killer was convicted only for unlicensed driving and driving without an insurance card. “Implementing procedures to make sure that these instruments are calibrated on a regular basis in each precinct would strengthen our criminal prosecutions,” Agnifilo said.
  • Include DAs on the Vision Zero task force. According to Agnifilo, no district attorneys were asked to help draft the Vision Zero Action Plan. “We are the only law enforcement agency that is missing from the discussion,” she said. Agnifilo also invited members of the Vision Zero task force to attend quarterly meetings that are held by DOT, NYPD, and city prosecutors.

And here is what Vance’s office says prosecutors need from Albany:

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Is Killing Someone While Unlicensed Worse Than Turning Without a Signal?

After the death of Angela Hurtado, we wrote that aggravated unlicensed operation in the third degree is “a go-to top charge” for prosecutors when an unlicensed driver kills someone. But the story of Orlando Findlayter suggests it’s a catch-all for any traffic offense committed while driving without a license.

In case you missed it, Findlayter is a supporter of Mayor Bill de Blasio who was arrested Monday night in Brooklyn, after police reportedly stopped him for making a left turn without signaling and found that he did not have a valid license. Reports say Findlayter had two outstanding warrants, but the charge stemming from the traffic stop was third degree aggravated unlicensed operation — an unclassified misdemeanor that stipulates that he drove without a license when he knew or should have known he didn’t have one. It carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

As in the Hurtado case, third degree aggravated unlicensed operation was the top charge against the drivers who killed pedestrians Maude SavageNicole Detweiler, Noshat Nahian, Rafael Diaz, Yolanda Casal, Laurence Renard, and Ibrihim Ahmed. In none of those cases was the driver charged with a more serious offense for causing a death.

Based on the charge against Findlayter, it appears that in the eyes of NYPD and city district attorneys, killing someone with a car merits the same penalty as failing to use a turn signal.