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Posts from the "Traffic Justice" Category

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DAs Insist They Don’t Call Car Crashes “Accidents,” Except When They Do

Queens DA Richard Brown, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, and Bronx DA Robert Johnson.

Queens DA Richard Brown, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, and Bronx DA Robert Johnson.

Among the demands Families For Safe Streets is making of district attorneys, one of the simpler changes is to stop using the word “accident” to describe traffic collisions. In exchanges this week, the offices of three district attorneys said in no uncertain terms that they already refrain from using the word “accident” in this manner. But that’s not actually the case.

Even former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly eventually came to the conclusion that the words we use to describe traffic violence matter. He directed NYPD in 2013 to adopt the word “collision” instead of “accident,” because “the term ‘accident’ has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event.” An “accident” is unavoidable, absolving people of responsibility, but a “crash” or “collision” has causes and can be traced to people’s actions.

In statements, DAs seem to understand this and claim to have dropped the word “accident” years ago. But in practice, they continue to call it an “accident” whenever a driver kills someone without receiving any criminal charge — which means the vast majority of the time.

“Prosecutors citywide have always called these cases ‘crashes,’” said Terry Raskyn, a spokesperson for Bronx DA Robert Johnson. She credited pressure from DAs in getting both NYPD and the DMV to stop using “accidents” as an official term in 2013. “We’ve spent 20 years objecting at trial to the defense attorneys characterizing them as accidents,” she said.

Yet in an accompanying statement explaining why he does not pursue charges against more drivers, Johnson said: “The legislature and the courts have outlined the rules for separating crimes from accidents. We go to great lengths to gather all available evidence in such cases, and then evaluate that evidence based on the state of the law. We make every effort to do as much as the law allows.”

Johnson isn’t the only district attorney so quick to discard the more neutral terminology. “Since DA Vance took office in 2010, this office has used the following terminology: crashes, collisions, and strikes,” said Vance spokesperson Joan Vollero. “We do not use the word ‘accident.’”

But when former Police Commissioner Howard Safir struck a woman before driving off in 2010, Vance’s office described it as an “accident” before deciding not to pursue charges. When asked about vehicular violence in November, Vance himself said “a prosecution is not necessarily a following event after a tragic accident.” And just yesterday, Vance fell back on the word “accident” three times to explain why he rarely prosecutes reckless drivers.

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DA Cy Vance: Most Manhattan Traffic Deaths Aren’t Crimes

Sofia Russo, whose daughter Ariel was killed by a Manhattan driver, is swarmed by reporters after asking Manhattan DA Cy Vance to meet with the families of crash victims. Photo: Brad Aaron

Sofia Russo, whose daughter Ariel was killed by a Manhattan driver, is swarmed by reporters after she asked District Attorney Cy Vance to meet with families of crash victims. Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson has agreed to work with Families For Safe Streets to hold drivers accountable for killing pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: Brad Aaron

All Cy Vance wanted to do was talk computer crime at the Yale Club, but Sofia Russo, who lost her daughter to traffic violence, wouldn’t let him stick to the script.

At a Crain’s breakfast in Midtown today, the Manhattan district attorney assured the capacity crowd that his office is going after gangs, targeting terrorists, and “keeping New York safe for business.” He also revealed that in four years he secured indictments in just 190 vehicular cases — including crashes involving drunk driving — which means he has allowed thousands of motorists to go unpenalized for injuring and killing people in traffic.

It’s pretty well established that Vance is serious about “cybercrime.” The Internet, Vance said this morning, is “our modern crime scene,” with fraud and other nefarious activity at “epidemic levels,” committed by perpetrators who “operate with impunity.” Vance touted a new lab dedicated to computer crimes, as well as a prosecutor training program. There are 85 assistant district attorneys assigned to computer-based crime in Vance’s office, he said, 15 of them full-time.

“Please consider this, those of you who are in the business world, my direct appeal,” said Vance. ”If you see cybercrime, report it to us. Call me, call the head of our investigation division … and we will respond to you promptly.”

Though he promised to make traffic justice a priority when he first ran for office in 2009, Vance hasn’t been as committed to holding motorists accountable for causing physical harm to pedestrians and cyclists. His prepared remarks didn’t touch on the thousands of people killed and injured by reckless Manhattan drivers on his watch — victims whose experiences with the DA’s office have often been frustrating. Traffic violence didn’t come up this morning until moderator Erik Engquist, Crain’s assistant managing editor, asked him the following:

“It’s basically legal in New York City, with the exception of the $250 fine you get, to turn into a crosswalk and run over pedestrians — kill them, maim them, mutilate them — if you stop, get out, express sympathy, and pay your $250 fine for failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. During your campaign in 2009 you said that that was wrong, that if you kill a person it was a crime, and this ‘rule of two’ … that you have to be doing something else at the same time to justify a conviction, like be drunk for instance, should not apply. In fact, doesn’t it still apply? Have you really kept to that?”

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Families of Traffic Violence Victims Demand Justice From District Attorneys

Photo: Stephen Miller

Judy Kottick speaks about her daughter Ella Bandes, who was killed by a turning MTA bus driver in 2013. No charges were filed. Photo: Stephen Miller

Braving the cold, more than 150 people gathered on the steps of City Hall yesterday to demand that New York City’s five district attorneys begin filing charges against reckless drivers who kill and injure New Yorkers on the streets.

“The five New York City district attorneys have failed to do their job,” said Amy Cohen, who helped found Families For Safe Streets after her 12-year-old son Sammy was killed in 2013. No charges were filed against the driver who killed her son. “New York City has a culture of lawlessness on our streets, because reckless drivers are not held accountable,” she said.

Charges for reckless or negligent driving are exceedingly rare absent other aggravating circumstances, even in cases where the victim dies. Since January 2012, more than 500 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed by drivers in NYC, but in only two known occasions have city DAs filed homicide charges against a driver who was not drunk, fleeing the scene, running from police, or intentionally attacking the victim, according to records kept by Streetsblog. Fewer than 2 percent of drivers in non-DUI cases are prosecuted, according to Families For Safe Streets.

Families for Safe Streets is asking for five changes from the DAs:

  • Comprehensive Vision Zero training for all staff and changing terminology from “accidents,” which implies a lack of fault, to “crashes” or “collisions.”
  • Work with NYPD to widely prosecute misdemeanor driving offenses in criminal court, including violations of Section 19-190, also known as the Right of Way Law, which creates criminal penalties for drivers who injure or kill pedestrians and cyclists with the right of way.
  • Significantly increase the number of reckless sober drivers charged with felony crimes and lead the charge for city and state legislative changes that may be necessary.
  • Introduce “restorative justice” and other alternative sentencing practices as part of the pre-plea conference for vehicular violence cases, with the input of victims and families.
  • Systematically compile and share data about charges filed and outcomes in vehicular violence cases.

Three of the city’s five district attorneys are on the ballot this year: Queens DA Richard Brown, who was first elected in 1991; Bronx DA Robert Johnson, who took office in 1989; and Staten Island DA Daniel Donovan, who was first elected to the position in 2003 and is now running for the congressional seat vacated by Michael Grimm. Ken Thompson defeated incumbent Charles Hynes in the race for Brooklyn DA in 2013. The same year, Manhattan DA Cy Vance faced only token opposition before cruising to a second term.

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Sunday: Families For Safe Streets to Train Spotlight on Feckless NYC DAs

Left to right: District attorneys Richard Brown, Dan Donovan, and Robert Johnson are up for re-election in 2015. NYC DAs are a major obstacle to Mayor de Blasio's Vision Zero program.

Left to right: District attorneys Richard Brown, Dan Donovan, and Robert Johnson are up for re-election in 2015. NYC DAs are a major obstacle to Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero program.

Since January 2012, Streetsblog has maintained a database of all known pedestrians and cyclists killed by drivers in New York City. We collect as much information on each crash as possible, including any charges filed against the motorists who took the victims’ lives.

Of over 400 fatalities tracked by Streetsblog in three years, in only two instances that we know of did a city district attorney file homicide charges against a driver for killing a pedestrian or cyclist following a crash that did not involve one or more aggravating factors, such as impairment by alcohol or drugs, hit-and-run, evading police, or striking a victim intentionally. In 2014, the inaugural year of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, there were no such prosecutions.

“Why is it that if you kill someone while driving drunk, the district attorney will press charges, but not if you kill or maim someone through reckless behavior on the road,” said Amy Cohen, whose 12-year-old son Sammy Cohen Eckstein was killed by a driver in Brooklyn in 2013, in a press release from Transportation Alternatives. On Sunday, TA and Families For Safe Streets will hold a rally at City Hall to “call on the City’s five district attorneys to become partners in the Vision Zero effort to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries.”

In the past three years, according to Streetsblog data, New York City motorists killed at least 27 children age 14 and under. Five of those drivers were charged for causing a death. Of those five, two were also accused of DWI, one fled the scene, and one was being chased by police. Only once since January 2012 has a city DA charged a sober driver who remained at the scene, and was not fleeing police, for fatally striking a child.

One year ago Saturday, a cab driver hit 9-year-old Cooper Stock and his father in an Upper West Side crosswalk. Cooper was killed, his father injured. The driver was ticketed for careless driving and failing to yield the right of way, but NYPD and Manhattan DA Cy Vance filed no criminal charges. ”Most New Yorkers don’t understand the reality that a driver can kill or maim your loved one, and then get back in their car and drive off, with no consequences,” said Dana Lerner in the TA press release.

TA wants the City Council, which has a say in how much money DAs get from the city budget, to begin holding oversight hearings on whether prosecutors are helping advance the goals of Vision Zero, as well as new legislation to compel DAs to release information about their cases. Three district attorneys — Richard Brown in Queens, Robert Johnson in the Bronx, and Dan Donovan in Staten Island — are up for re-election this year.

“District attorneys are the people’s prosecutors, and they must champion public safety,” said Paul Steely White, TA executive director. “The public needs more information about how D.A.s determine whether to prosecute after serious crashes, and how often they bring charges.”

Sunday’s rally begins at 2 p.m. on the City Hall steps.

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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.”

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NYPD: 1,295 Pedestrians and Cyclists Injured, 14 Killed in Traffic in November

Image: NYPD

Image: NYPD

Twenty-five people died in New York City traffic in November, and 4,222 were injured, according to the latest NYPD crash data report [PDF].

As of the end of November, 138 pedestrians and cyclists were reported killed by city motorists this year, and 13,523 injured, compared to 161 deaths and 14,721 injuries for the same period in 2013.

Citywide, at least 10 pedestrians and two cyclists were fatally struck by drivers: two pedestrians and one cyclist in Manhattan; two pedestrians and one cyclist in the Bronx; four pedestrians in Brooklyn; three pedestrians in Queens; and one pedestrian in Staten Island. Among the victims were Alex Davis, Melvina Hibbert, Edmund Chou, Julian Mendez Porres, Jenna Daniels, Latchman Singh, Mohammad Uddin, Robert Perry, Shan Zheng, Jason Aitcheson, and an unnamed male pedestrian in Queens.

Motorists killed at least one child and three seniors in November: Mohammad Uddin, 14; Melvina Hibbert, 76; Edmund Chou, 79; and Julian Mendez Porres, 88.

Motorists killed at least one cyclist whose death was not covered in the press.

Across the city, 1,017 pedestrians and 278 cyclists were reported hurt in collisions with motor vehicles. Per NYPD policy, few of these crashes were investigated by trained officers.

Of 11 fatal crashes on surface streets reported by Streetsblog and other outlets, one motorist was known to have been charged for causing a death: the Manhattan driver accused of striking Robert Perry and leaving the scene was charged with homicide. There were no reports of police and district attorneys applying the city’s Right of Way law following a fatal crash in November. Historically, nearly half of motorists who kill a New York City pedestrian or cyclist do not receive so much as a citation for careless driving.

In one case, immediately after a pedestrian was killed, police exonerated the driver by telling the press the victim was “outside the crosswalk.” In two cases, NYPD publicly blamed seniors struck by motorists for their own deaths.

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DA Robert Johnson: No Charges for Driver Who Killed Child on Bronx Sidewalk

Bronx DA Robert Johnson filed no charges against the driver who hit 10 people, including at least three children, on a sidewalk outside a school, killing 8-year-old Rylee Ramos.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson filed no charges against the driver who hit 10 people, including at least three children, on a sidewalk outside a Kingsbridge Heights school, killing 8-year-old Rylee Ramos.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson filed no charges against a motorist who drove on a sidewalk outside a Bronx school in October, striking 10 people and killing 8-year-old Rylee Ramos.

New York City motorists have killed at least eight children age 14 and under in 2014 — one in the Bronx, two in Manhattan, and five in Brooklyn — according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog. NYPD and city DAs charged just one driver for causing a death.

On Friday, October 24, Sonia Rodriguez backed onto a curb outside PS 307 on Eames Place in Kingsbridge Heights as children exited the school after dismissal, according to the Daily News. At least three of the people she hit were children. A classmate and friend of Rylee’s was hospitalized, along with a 4-year-old girl and four women, the News said. Rylee’s mother was among the victims.

Rodriguez pinned Rylee to a pole with her car. “She must have not put her brakes on, and the car comes zooming out toward where the kids are coming out of the school,” witness Lenora Croft told the Daily News, which posted video of the crash. “What finally stopped the car was the green pole — and that’s where the little girl was standing.”

Rylee was pronounced dead at Saint Barnabas Hospital.

The Times reported in October that Rodriguez was questioned and released by NYPD. At that time a source with Johnson’s office told Streetsblog the crash was under investigation.

That was seven weeks ago. When as of last week the case hadn’t turned up in an online database of court records — likely indicating that no charges were filed — Streetsblog asked Johnson’s office for an update. Our message was not returned.

On December 11, the Riverdale Press reported that Rodriguez, whom the paper did not identify by name, “has not been charged, though police said an investigation is ongoing.”

Some perspective on “ongoing” crash investigations: The investigation into the death of 9-year-old Cooper Stock was officially open for months after Manhattan DA Cy Vance’s office told family members no charges would be filed against the cab driver who killed him.

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Vance Deal: $400 Fine for Unlicensed Driver Who Killed Senior in Crosswalk

An unlicensed driver who fatally struck a senior as she crossed the street with the right of way will pay a $400 fine, pursuant to a plea arrangement with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

NYPD and Manhattan DA Cy Vance declined to charge an unlicensed motorist for causing the death of a senior who was crossing the street with the right of way. The driver was fined $400 for driving without a license. Photo: Brad Aaron

NYPD and Manhattan DA Cy Vance declined to charge an unlicensed motorist for causing the death of a senior who was crossing the street with the right of way. The driver was fined $400 for driving without a license. Photo: Brad Aaron

Keiko Ohnishi was walking with a cane across Madison Avenue at E. 98th Street on September 4 at around 9:47 a.m. when Kristin Rodriguez, 25, drove a minivan into her while making a left turn from E. 98th onto Madison, according to NYPD and the Post.

“[The van] hit her and she [flew] up and back down and he kept on going with her under him,” witness Tracy Molloy told the Post. “He was trying to make the light like every New York City driver.”

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

Ohnishi, 66, was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital in critical condition. She died from her injuries. Streetsblog was made aware of her death via the NYPD monthly crash data report and WNYC’s Mean Streets project.

Rodriguez, whose van had North Carolina plates, was summonsed for failure to yield and charged with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation, according to the Post and court records. He was not charged under city code Section 19-190, known as the Right of Way Law, which as of August makes it a misdemeanor to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. NYPD and Vance did not upgrade charges against Rodriguez after Ohnishi died.

Aggravated unlicensed operation is an unclassified misdemeanor, the lowest level misdemeanor category. It is seemingly the default charge against unlicensed drivers who kill New York City pedestrians, and is also applied when unlicensed drivers commit non-criminal traffic infractions. Third degree aggravated unlicensed operation carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Drivers who plead guilty are normally fined with no jail time.

At a Fordham Law School event in November, Vance said he is prevented from prosecuting drivers who kill in cases that “may not have the facts to support a criminal prosecution and conviction.” For this crash and others like it, however, the Vance team clearly had enough evidence to bring a criminal case, yet declined to charge an unlicensed motorist who failed to yield for taking a life. Since the driver was charged with unlicensed driving and failure to yield, this case also seems to satisfy the so-called “rule of two.”

On Wednesday, Rodriguez, who was free on $1,000 bond, pled guilty and was sentenced to a $400 fine and $88 in fees, court records say. There is no indication that the court took action against his driver’s license. Rodriguez is scheduled to pay his fine in March.

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Does Cy Vance Use His Surveillance Camera Bank to Fight Traffic Violence?

In New York City, if you hit someone with a motor vehicle and keep driving, odds are you will get away with it. NYPD made arrests in just 25 percent of fatal hit-and-run crashes in 2012, according to Transportation Alternatives. And in many cases where the driver is eventually identified, a simple “I didn’t see her” is all it takes to satisfy prosecutors and police.

A hit-and-run truck driver nearly killed Wendy Ruther and her 3-year-old son Justin. Is Cy Vance putting his lauded video surveillance system to work on the case? Photo via DNAinfo

A hit-and-run truck driver nearly killed Wendy Ruther and her 3-year-old son Justin. Is Cy Vance putting his lauded video surveillance system to work on the case? Photo via DNAinfo

On December 1, a truck driver hit Wendy Ruther and nearly ran over her young son, Justin, as the pair walked to Justin’s preschool. The two were in a crosswalk at W. 65th Street and Broadway, DNAinfo reported, when the driver made a right turn, hit them both, and continued south on Broadway. CBS reports that NYPD has yet to make an arrest, and Wendy Ruther remains hospitalized with serious injuries.

“She recalls feeling the three wheels of the truck going over her,” said the woman’s husband, Aldo Lombardi.

The hit-and-run accident, steps away from Lincoln Center, a week ago Monday nearly killed her.

“She still cannot believe she is alive,” Aldo Lombardi said.

Wendy Lombardi has a crushed leg, a fractured pelvis, and a deep gash near her eye. The injuries came as she managed to save the life of her 3-year-old son Justin.

“He recalls being hit by a big wheel,” Aldo Lombardi said. “Wendy managed to push him off of danger.”

CBS says Aldo Lombardi ”was told that the Lincoln Center security cameras at the scene were pointing the wrong way,” and “no one got a close look” at the driver. “I would ask him to come forward,” Lombardi said. “I would like him not to be on the streets.”

It seems that in Manhattan, at least, NYPD and vehicular crimes prosecutors have a powerful tool to help catch hit-and-run drivers, and collect evidence for other traffic crash cases. The recent New York Times profile of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance described a web of video surveillance cameras spanning the borough, with access at investigators’ fingertips.

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Driver With Revoked License Not Charged for Killing East Flatbush Senior

A driver with a revoked license killed a senior in Brooklyn Tuesday. As of Wednesday he was not charged by NYPD or District Attorney Ken Thompson for causing a death.

The crash occurred in the 67th Precinct, where motorists have killed at least three pedestrians this year, and at least seven pedestrians since January 2013.

Will District Attorney Ken Thompson charge an unlicensed driver for killing a Brooklyn senior? Image: ##http://www.ny1.com/content/politics/inside_city_hall/190291/ny1-online--brooklyn-da-candidate-thompson-responds-to-attacks##NY1##

Will District Attorney Ken Thompson charge an unlicensed driver for killing a Brooklyn senior? Image: NY1

At around 5:40 p.m., Joan Hale, 71, was crossing Foster Avenue at New York Avenue north to south when the motorist, eastbound on Foster, hit her with a 2012 Subaru Outback, according to NYPD. Police said the driver, a 75-year-old man, was proceeding with a green light, but had no information on how fast he was driving or how he failed to avoid hitting the victim.

Hale suffered severe head trauma and died at Kings County Hospital. The driver was arrested for driving with a revoked license. His name was withheld by NYPD.

It is not easy to lose a driver’s license in New York State, even temporarily. Offenses that make a license subject to revocation include DWI, homicide, leaving the scene of a crash resulting in injury or death, and three speeding or misdemeanor traffic violations committed within 18 months. For all of these offenses, except one, the minimum penalty imposed by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles is a six-month revocation. Driving with a BAC of .18 percent or higher carries a revocation of at least one year. There is no automatic DMV penalty for killing someone with a motor vehicle.

State lawmakers have failed to hold unlicensed motorists accountable. Legislation to make it a class E felony to cause injury or death while driving without a license was rejected by the State Senate this year, and did not come to a vote in the Assembly. Another bill to require drivers with suspended licenses to surrender vehicle registrations and license plates did not get a vote in either chamber last session. As it stands, a $500 fine is the standard penalty for killing a New York City pedestrian while driving without a valid license.

Motorists have killed at least five New York City pedestrians in December, including a child and three seniors. In four cases, NYPD blamed the victim in the press. Last Friday a driver hit 64-year-old Gloria Ramiro as she crossed Third Avenue at 81st Street. She died from her injuries Monday. Police said Ramiro was “crossing mid-block,” according to DNAinfo. The driver was not charged.

To voice your concerns about neighborhood traffic safety directly to Deputy Inspector Joseph M. Gulotta, the commanding officer of the 67th Precinct, go to the next precinct community council meeting. The 67th Precinct council meetings happen at 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month at the precinct, 2820 Snyder Avenue. Call 718-287-2530 for information.

The City Council district where Joan Hale was killed is represented by Jumaane Williams. Motorists have killed at least three pedestrians in Williams’s district in 2014. To encourage Williams to take action to improve street safety in his district and citywide, contact him at 212-788-6859, JWilliams@council.nyc.gov or @JumaaneWilliams.