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Posts from the "Traffic Justice" Category

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Vance Brings Manslaughter Charge in Death of Pedestrian Charity Hicks

A motorist charged with manslaughter for the death of a Manhattan pedestrian is scheduled to appear in court later this week.

Charity Hicks. Photo via Gothamist

Charity Hicks. Photo via Gothamist

Thomas Shanley, 35, was texting when he drove a Dodge SUV onto the curb on 10th Avenue near W. 34th Street at around 8:20 a.m. on May 31, striking a fire hydrant and a bus stop signpost and mortally wounding Charity Hicks, according to a criminal court complaint and reports from Gothamist and the Daily News. A second pedestrian was also injured.

The criminal court complaint says video reviewed by NYPD showed the SUV moving northbound on 10th Avenue when the driver “swerve[d] across two lanes of traffic and onto the sidewalk.” Records from Shanley’s iPhone, found at the scene, indicated that the user was sending a text message at the time of the collision, according to the complaint.

Hicks was policy director for the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, according to a Detroit news outlet, and was visiting NYC for a conference. She suffered severe head trauma, broken ribs, and injuries to her lungs. Hicks died on July 8.

Shanley fled the scene on foot, reports said, and was arrested in New Jersey on August 1. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance charged Shanley with one count of manslaughter and one count of felony leaving the scene, according to court records.

Whether or not they remain at the scene, sober drivers are not usually charged with manslaughter, or the less serious charge of vehicular homicide, for killing New York City pedestrians. There are exceptions, but it’s difficult to discern why some drivers involved in serious crashes are prosecuted while others are not, since city district attorneys do not generally discuss vehicular crimes cases, even when cases are closed or no charges are brought.

Cell phone evidence and video of the crash may have factored into the DA’s decision in this case, as could leaving the scene. In addition, Shanley was reportedly on parole at the time of the crash. Other New York City DAs — former Brooklyn DA Charles Hynes especially — seemed more inclined to issue felony charges against drivers with criminal records.

Manslaughter is a class C felony with possible sentences ranging from probation to 15 years in prison. Shanley’s next court appearance is set for Friday.

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No Charges for Bus Driver Who Killed Pedestrian Jennifer White-Estick

Police filed no charges against the MTA bus driver who killed a pedestrian in Bedford-Stuyvesant two weeks ago. Instead, NYPD and the tabloids put the victim on trial.

At around 1:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, September 17, Jennifer White-Estick was run over while trying to retrieve her cell phone from underneath a B44 bus she had just exited at Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street.

Jennifer White-Estick. Photo via Facebook

Jennifer White-Estick. Photo via Facebook

By the time the Post published its extremely graphic report on the crash at around 4 p.m., police had declared “no criminality suspected.” Reporters from the Post and the Daily News focused on the actions of the victim, but abetted by NYPD, the Daily News took its reportage to new depths.

White-Estick had no ID on her, but the day after the crash, the Daily News reported that police found a crack pipe in her bra. Along with her identity, the Daily News announced last Wednesday that, according to unnamed sources, White-Estick had “a prior criminal record.” The paper also reminded readers about the crack pipe.

MTA bus drivers have killed at least four pedestrians and one cyclist this year; last year’s death toll was seven pedestrians and one man on a skateboard. Over half of those 13 crashes occurred as the bus driver was making a turn.

While the tabloids focused on the more salacious aspects of White-Estick’s personal life, and the gory details of her death, less attention was given to factors that might prevent the next MTA-involved pedestrian fatality.

“The bus driver, James Maxwell, told cops he didn’t see the woman,” the Daily News reported. Maxwell’s safety record was not mentioned, and there was only a passing reference to the role vehicle design may have played in the crash.

The front of the bus was equipped with a driver-assisting video camera, but a transit investigator who saw the video said it could not have provided a warning.

“You can’t see nothing,” the investigator said.

Earlier this month, Melania Ward was struck by the driver of the Q47 she’d been riding as she crossed Astoria Boulevard in Elmhurst. NYPD did not reveal who had the right of way, and no charges were filed.

Last March, an MTA bus driver turned into a crosswalk occupied by three people, striking and killing 21-year-old Marisol Martinez. After Martinez’s death, City Council Member Steve Levin called for changes to bus design, including guards that keep pedestrians away from the rear wheels. An MTA rep later said the agency had decided against installing such guards.

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So Far, NYPD Isn’t Enforcing New Vision Zero Law as Intended

It was a welcome development when NYPD filed the first-ever charges under Section 19-190, a new law that makes it a misdemeanor for drivers to strike pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way. The law was intended to enable precinct officers to impose consequences for reckless driving, but so far, NYPD doesn’t appear to be using it this way.

Image: WNBC

Even when CIS is on the case, application of Section 19-190 is no sure thing. As of Friday afternoon, police had not charged the driver who killed 82-year-old Manhattan pedestrian Sui Leung, though available information suggested the victim had the right of way. Image: WNBC

Section 19-190 applies a ”strict liability” standard to traffic crashes — that is, a driver who strikes a pedestrian or cyclist when the victim has the right of way is presumed to have committed a misdemeanor, unless the driver can show he was not at fault.

For years, only CIS personnel were authorized by NYPD to file charges against motorists for causing injury and death, unless an officer witnessed a crash. But by making such collisions crimes, and therefore empowering rank-and-file officers to file charges, Section 19-190 was meant to put an end to NYPD’s “observed violation rule.” Theoretically, if a precinct cop determines that a driver hit a pedestrian who was crossing with a walk signal, that officer should now be able to make an arrest on the spot.

More than a month after the law took effect, however, there is no evidence that NYPD is applying the law as intended. Motorists have killed at least 12 pedestrians and injured countless others in the last five weeks. The only confirmed instance where NYPD filed charges under Section 19-190 involved a weeks-long CIS investigation. Streetsblog has a request pending with NYPD about how many times police have applied the law, and if precinct officers are enforcing it.

Attorney Steve Vaccaro pointed to potential obstacles to enforcement before Section 19-190 was adopted:

Unless Intro 238 is communicated repeatedly to rank and file police officers via memorandum, roll call instructions, and formal in-service trainings, most police officers will not even become aware of the new law. And awareness is just the starting point. Intro 238 runs counter to the general belief held by many officers that a traffic crash is by definition a non-criminal matter, peripheral at best to the core police mission of fighting crime.

There are thousands of serious crashes a year in NYC, and CIS investigates only a few hundred. Section 19-190 is supposed to give police the latitude they need to deter traffic violence by bringing charges against dangerous drivers who would otherwise go unpenalized for harming people. If Mayor de Blasio expects drivers to get the message, he’s got to get NYPD on board first.

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NYPD Starts Using Vision Zero Law, Charges Driver for Killing UES Pedestrian

NYPD has filed misdemeanor charges against a cab driver who killed an Upper East Side pedestrian, marking the first time police have employed a new law that makes it a crime for drivers to strike pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way, according to a report in DNAinfo.

NYPD filed criminal charges against the cab driver who killed Silva Gallo on the Upper East Side in August, marking the first time police applied a new Vision Zero law intended to hold drivers accountable for harming pedestrians who have the right of way. Image: WCBS

NYPD filed criminal charges against the cab driver who killed Silvia Gallo on the Upper East Side, marking the first time police applied a new Vision Zero law intended to hold drivers accountable for harming pedestrians who have the right of way. Image: WCBS

Silvia Gallo, 58, was in the crosswalk at E. 79th Street on the afternoon of August 29 when MD Hossain hit her while turning left from Madison Avenue. Gallo was dragged beneath the cab until Hossain came to a stop and witnesses overturned the vehicle, which was still running, to free her. She was pronounced dead at Lenox Hill Hospital.

DNAinfo reports that Gallo, a Pilates instructor, was preparing to leave for Ireland the next day, to work and live with her boyfriend.

Hossain’s hack license was suspended after the crash. Police initially said both the driver and the victim had the right of way — an impossible scenario, since the motorist would have been required to yield, but one that suggested Gallo was in the crosswalk with the walk signal.

Available information indicated the driver could have been charged under Intro 238, now known as code Section 19-190, which took effect on August 22. The law was one of a number of new measures intended to reduce traffic deaths and injuries as part of the mayor’s Vision Zero initiative, but NYPD wasn’t yet ready to put it to use. Motorists have killed at least nine pedestrians and cyclists, including Gallo, since the law took effect.

DNAinfo reports that police filed charges in Gallo’s death last week.

After a month-long probe, the NYPD Collision Investigations Squad determined last Thursday that Hossain had violated the new law. He was arrested at his Bronx home and formally charged. Hossain, who has no previous criminal record, faces a $250 fine per offense and possible jail time under the new law, officials say.

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Every NYC Traffic Death Should Be Investigated Like the Central Park Crash

When the news broke last week that a cyclist had critically injured a pedestrian in Central Park, a number of things happened that you don’t normally see after a serious New York City traffic crash.

Like every fallen NYC pedestrian and cyclist, Jill Tarlov deserves justice. Photo via New York Post

Like every fallen NYC pedestrian and cyclist, Jill Tarlov deserves justice. Photo via New York Post

First, unlike most instances when a motorist strikes a pedestrian or cyclist, the crash received extensive and sustained coverage from just about every major media outlet in the city. Though traffic violence makes headlines all year long, thousands of pedestrian and cyclist injuries, and many deaths, go unreported. The vast majority of crashes that receive ink or airtime are forgotten with the next news cycle.

NYPD not only released the name of the victim, Jill Tarlov, but also the identity of the person accused of hitting her — Jason Marshall. NYPD normally gives out the names of deceased pedestrians and cyclists, but drivers’ identities are shielded unless summonses or charges are issued, which is extremely rare.

NYPD released no exculpatory statement in Marshall’s defense, nor did anonymous police sources blame Tarlov for the collision that eventually took her life. Police apparently did not issue the standard “no criminality suspected” line, which is usually the last word the public hears after a driver — a sober driver, at least — takes a life. On the contrary, police sources leaked details of the vehicle operator’s actions to the press.

Investigators interviewed witnesses and confiscated Marshall’s bike as evidence. When a driver kills someone, his account of the crash is often the only one police are interested in, and NYPD literally allows motorists to drive away from fatal crash scenes. In fact, while drivers injure and kill thousands of pedestrians and cyclists a year, only a handful of crashes are investigated by NYPD and city district attorneys.

The authorities should leave no stone unturned in investigating what happened to Jill Tarlov, and charges should be filed if warranted. In turn, law enforcers and the media should approach the next serious injury or death with the same tenacity displayed over the last four days.

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Proposed Hit-and-Run Fines Doubled, But Law Could Hinge on Drivers’ Word

Ahead of a scheduled Tuesday vote by the full City Council, transportation committee members voted today to increase proposed civil penalties for hit-and-run drivers. However, the bill in question still contains language that could make it difficult to apply the new fines.

Intro 371 originally called for fines ranging from $500 to $5,000 for hit-and-run crashes where a driver “knows or has cause to know” an injury has occurred, with fines at the higher end of the scale applied in cases of serious injury and death. After a hearing held earlier this month, Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Ydanis Rodriguez, the bill’s primary sponsors, doubled the maximum fine to $10,000, and assigned a minimum fine of $5,000 for fatal crashes.

Committee members passed the bill with a 9-0 vote. “It can, and I believe will, serve as a deterrent to those who would do the same thing to others,” Van Bramer said today, citing three hit-and-run fatalities in that have happened in his district in the last 18 months.

“At the same time, we need our colleagues in Albany to act to make all of us safer,” said Rodriguez, referring to state laws that give drivers who may be impaired by alcohol or drugs an incentive to flee the scene, since the penalty for hit-and-run is less severe than causing death or injury while intoxicated.

While Albany fails to act, by attaching civil penalties at the local level, council members are using what tools are available to them. But as we reported after the initial hearing, the “knows or has cause to know” provision may make the law, if passed, not nearly as effective as it could be. To avoid criminal charges, often all a hit-and-run driver has to do is claim he “didn’t see” the victim, presumably in part because trial outcomes are notoriously unpredictable, even in cases where prosecutors have video evidence.

A new city law that makes it a misdemeanor for a driver to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way employs strict liability, a legal standard based on driver actions, rather than driver intent. Streetsblog asked Van Bramer’s office how the “knew or had reason to know” condition would be satisfied under the bill, and if strict liability-type language was considered instead, but we didn’t get an answer.

Another issue is whether application of the law would depend on NYPD investigations. Of 60 fatal hit-and-runs investigated in 2012, NYPD arrested just 15 drivers, according to Transportation Alternatives. After a hit-and-run driver seriously injured cyclist Dulcie Canton in Bushwick, the victim herself collected evidence pointing to a driver who lives near the crash site, but the detective assigned to the case said he didn’t have time to follow up with the car’s owner.

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TLC Commish: It’s Up to NYPD to Get Reckless Cab Drivers Off the Streets

Dana Lerner, Cooper Stock's mother, before today's TLC hearing, with City Council Member Helen Rosenthal at left. Photo: Brad Aaron

Dana Lerner, Cooper Stock’s mother, before today’s TLC hearing, with City Council Member Helen Rosenthal at left. Photo: Brad Aaron

The success or failure of a Vision Zero law intended to get reckless cab drivers off the road will depend on how often NYPD issues summonses and charges after serious crashes, the Taxi and Limousine Commission confirmed today.

Cooper Stock, 9, was killed last January by a cab driver who failed to yield on West End Avenue. Signed by Mayor de Blasio in June as part of a package of street safety bills, Cooper’s Law allows the TLC to suspend or revoke hack licenses of cab drivers who cause critical injury or death as a result of breaking traffic laws.

The law takes effect Sunday, but as we reported when the bill passed the City Council, since action against a cab driver’s TLC license hinges on a conviction for a traffic violation or a criminal charge, its effectiveness may be severely compromised. Of thousands of crashes annually in which pedestrians and cyclists are injured and killed, NYPD investigates only a few hundred.

At a public hearing this morning on TLC rule changes necessitated by new Vision Zero laws, Dana Lerner, Cooper’s mother, asked TLC board members and Commissioner Meera Joshi how the law would be enforced. Joshi said the TLC “works closely” with NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan and the Collision Investigation Squad, which according to Joshi has for the past few months contacted the TLC “within minutes” of any serious crash involving a for-hire driver. Upon getting the word from NYPD, Joshi said, the TLC dispatches inspectors to crash scenes.

The problem with this protocol is that it doesn’t necessarily involve CIS, which still handles a tiny fraction of crashes. And even in cases where known information points to driver behavior as the primary cause of a serious crash, CIS investigations rarely result in summonses or charges.

Despite an unprecedented push from the mayor and City Council to reduce traffic violence, NYPD has shown no signs of reforming its crash investigation policies. This is evident in the department’s failure to enforce another new law, known as Section 19-190, that makes it a misdemeanor for a motorist to harm a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way.

Since Section 19-190 took effect in August, New York City motorists have killed at least seven pedestrians and injured countless others. To date, no drivers have been reported charged under the law.

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If Police Don’t Take Traffic Violence Seriously, Vision Zero Will Fail

Eight months in, Mayor de Blasio and his administration should be proud of how much has been achieved under the Vision Zero program. As an attorney and advocate for crash victims, my expectations were exceeded by the early progress in almost every area of this multi-agency initiative. There have even been noticeable changes at the police department — the one agency that historically has been most resistant to stepping up on street safety. But as shown by the Dulcie Canton scandal NYPD’s response has been inconsistent. [Disclosure: The author is on the board of StreetsPAC, which endorsed Bill de Blasio for mayor, and his law firm represents Dulcie Canton.]

Dulcie’s case illustrates the gaping holes that remain in NYPD’s approach to Vision Zero. She was struck with tremendous force in a horrific hit-and-run crash on August 7 and suffered serious injuries, somehow managing to escape with her life (in large part because she was wearing a helmet). Surveillance video shows a sedan driver speeding behind her fully-illuminated bicycle, striking her, and driving off without so much as hesitating.

Although, as is often the case, the surveillance video did not capture the car’s license plate, and the driver sped off before witnesses could get a look at him, Bushwick residents at the crash scene came together in a remarkable way to help identify the driver. The owner of the building by the crash site went to extraordinary lengths to preserve footage from his surveillance cameras. People on the block recovered a piece of the car that fell off when it struck Dulcie, bearing serial numbers that link it to the vehicle. The skateboarder with Dulcie that night worked with neighbors to identify the car, parked just a block or so from the crash scene. This prompt action from neighborhood residents — the lengths people went to in order to help a crash victim and find a perpetrator — shows just how much the principles of Vision Zero matter to New Yorkers.

All that was left for me to do as Dulcie’s lawyer was to bring this evidence to the police and let them do their job — or so I thought. But that’s where the process broke down. Because Dulcie thankfully hadn’t been killed or critically injured, the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad did not respond. Instead, a detective at the 83rd Precinct was assigned to investigate the case as a hit-and-run. With all optimism, I met with the detective on the fourth day after Dulcie’s crash and gave him all the evidence, and told him we were waiting to inform the insurer of the car of our claim because we didn’t want the company to alert the owner of the car to the investigation.

Over the following month, I followed up with the detective several times by phone and in writing. He explained to me that he was busy with a heavy caseload and needed more time before he could question the owner. After three weeks, the Bushwick neighbors who had been so helpful and had continued to monitor the car advised that the owner had fixed the damage from the crash. Now that critical evidence was being lost and concealed, we had to act, and so the car’s insurer was alerted.

Naturally, I heard back from the insurer that the owner of the car denied any knowledge of the incident. But recent press attention to this case has caught the attention of some law enforcement officials, and following a meeting yesterday it appears that Dulcie’s crash may finally be investigated as it should have been. Many thanks to folks who made phone calls and used social media to help us move this case higher on NYPD’s to-do list!

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New Penalties for Reckless Drivers Now In Effect, But NYPD Isn’t Ready

In May, the City Council passed a package of legislation to crack down on traffic violence. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the bills. Today, one of the most important bills in that package goes into effect: Intro 238, also known as Section 19-190, creates a new criminal misdemeanor charge for reckless drivers. But NYPD’s legal department has yet to create an enforcement directive for officers and investigators on the street.

The driver who killed Jean Chambers would have faced criminal charges, not just a traffic ticket, under a law that took effect today. Photo via DNAinfo

Under the new law, a driver’s failure to yield to a pedestrian or cyclist with the right of way is a traffic infraction with a fine of up to $50 or 15 days in jail, or both. If the driver strikes and injures the pedestrian or cyclist, that escalates to a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $250 or 30 days in jail. Unlike a traffic infraction, a misdemeanor charge involves an arrest and a required appearance in court. Guilty pleas or convictions result in not just a fine or possibly jail time, but also a permanent, public criminal record.

Many sober reckless drivers who injure and kill, leaving behind victims including Jean Chambers and Allison Liao, among many others, have until now gotten off with nothing more than a traffic ticket and a fine payable by mail.

But will police use the new tool? Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who helped push for its passage, isn’t so sure. ”At the mayoral signing of 19-190, I tried to buttonhole Transportation Bureau Chief [Thomas] Chan to ask what steps would be taken to inform and train rank and file officers,” he said in an email yesterday. ”He told me he would have to check with department counsel. Last night, I raised the issue with Chief of the Department Banks via Twitter. No reply.”

Vaccaro wants to see the department embrace the new law sooner rather than later. “NYPD has given New Yorkers concerned about street safety no reason to believe that anything will change on August 22 when the misdemeanor law takes effect,” he said.

NYPD did not reply to a request for comment, but City Hall says the department is still looking into it. “This is an important new tool to improve the safety of the streets for pedestrians and cyclists,” said de Blasio spokesperson Wiley Norvell. “It’s currently going through NYPD legal which analyzes new criminal law and develops enforcement directives.”

Next up: Cooper’s Law, also signed in June, allows the Taxi and Limousine Commission to suspend or revoke the licenses of cab and livery drivers who cause critical injury or death as a result of breaking traffic laws. It takes effect September 21.

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Will Cy Vance Fail to Prosecute Another Serious Midtown Curb-Jump Crash?

New Yorkers have seen this before.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance sees no evidence of recklessness here. Photo: ##https://twitter.com/FDNY/status/496750617613066240##@FDNY##

No evidence of recklessness here, says Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance. Photo: @FDNY

On a beautiful summer day, a professional driver with a history of recklessness behind the wheel drives onto a crowded Midtown sidewalk, striking multiple people and causing serious injuries. The driver lays blame elsewhere, on factors he claims were beyond his control. Meanwhile, staff from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office, who don’t normally discuss vehicular crimes with reporters, issue statements assuring the public that prosecutors are on the case.

It was one year ago this month that yellow cab driver Mohammad Faysal Himon severed the leg of tourist Sian Green. In November, Vance’s office announced that no charges would be filed.

On Tuesday afternoon, William Dalambert crashed a Gray Line double-decker bus into an SUV and another sightseeing bus at 47th Street and Seventh Avenue, then jumped the curb and knocked over a light pole, injuring 18 people. Dalambert has anywhere from 11 to 20 license suspensions on his record, according to reports. He has been cited for speeding, using a cell phone while driving, and driving without a license. Video reportedly shows him accelerating before Tuesday’s crash, as the light in front of the bus turned red. Dalambert claimed the brakes on the bus failed, but investigators found no evidence of a mechanical problem.

Dalambert was arrested for driving while ability impaired, but further tests indicated no intoxication, and to this point Vance has filed no charges.

“[A]t this present stage of the investigation, there is not sufficient basis to conclude that the defendant was operating the tour bus in a reckless manner,” read a court notice filed by Vance’s office. Vance spokesperson Joan Vollero said the office is still investigating: “We are awaiting results of the full toxicology report. We are taking this matter seriously.”

Whether or not Dalambert was under the influence, that he drove into two vehicles, mounted the curb and injured multiple bystanders is not in dispute. Only through sheer luck did the people in his path escape death, and the severity of the victims’ injuries is not publicly known.

There is video of this crash, and, as with the Sian Green case, no shortage of witnesses. And yet — as with the Sian Green case — Vance has issued no charges for recklessness or criminal negligence.

Time will tell if DA Vance steps up in this instance to protect New Yorkers from dangerous drivers, or if the outcome of this serious crash will be déjà vu all over again.