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Manhattan DA Cy Vance Won’t Prosecute Cab Driver Who Killed 9-Year-Old

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance will file no criminal charges against the cab driver who killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock and injured his father in an Upper West Side crosswalk in January.

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

Lisa Belkin of Yahoo News reports that prosecutors met Wednesday with Cooper’s parents, Richard Stock and Dana Lerner.

“They told me there is nothing in the law right now that specifies that he can be charged with any crime,” Lerner said, describing the meeting. Under New York law, criminal charges can only be brought if a driver who injures or kills a pedestrian commits two misdemeanors at a time. Because the driver, Koffi Komlani, was charged with “failure to yield” but nothing else, he will face a penalty of up to $300 and three points on his license.

First, the “rule of two” is an arbitrary standard 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. It has no statutory basis, and as a candidate for DA in 2009, Vance pledged to challenge the precedent in court.

Here is a passage that used to appear on a now-defunct page on Vance’s campaign web site:

There is no reason why two traffic violations are necessary in order to support a conviction of criminally negligent homicide. I view the “Rule of Two” as the result of case law which should be modified to reflect the reality that one vehicular crime is fully capable of killing. Although in recent years this notion has been applied by the courts in a less strict manner — it is indisputable that it does not take two violations to kill someone. Many violations — speeding, running a red light, or failing to stop at a stop sign are more than dangerous enough to take a life.

So why did Vance decline to pursue charges for this vehicular killing? As was the case when Vance failed to prosecute the cab driver who severed the leg of a Midtown tourist, the public is left to guess. “A spokesman for the DA’s office said that the agency does not comment on investigations or charges that are not brought,” Belkin reports.

Instead, Vance’s office referred to testimony it provided to the City Council in February: “It can be difficult for people to understand why a crash that seriously injures or kills someone is not always a crime. The reality is that often these cases do not meet the complicated legal requirements for criminal charges.”

It is difficult to understand why Vance is not prosecuting sober reckless drivers who injure, maim, and kill, especially since he refuses to say.

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Vance Brings Rare Murder Charge Against Driver Who Killed Man on Sidewalk

Last June, according to prosecutors, 33-year-old Shaun Martin, under the influence of alcohol and drugs, got behind the wheel of a Nissan Altima and began speeding down Second Avenue in the East Village. At 4th Street, he veered across three lanes of traffic, jumped the curb and slammed into four people, including florist Mohammed Akkas Ali, who came out of a coma but later died, reportedly after removing his breathing tube.

Mohammed Akkas Ali, who died after a curb-jumping driver now facing murder charges crashed in the East Village. Photo via Daily News

Mohammed Akkas Ali was killed by a curb-jumping driver who now faces a murder charge. Photo via Daily News

Now, Martin has been charged with second-degree murder for Ali’s death, along with aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, reckless endangerment, driving while impaired by drugs, and other charges. Court documents say Martin, who according to DNAinfo has prior arrests for drunk driving and cocaine possession, was high on PCP and alcohol at the time of the crash. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced the charges this afternoon.

“The death of Mohammed Akkas Ali is a tragedy that could have been averted,” Vance said in a press release. “Intoxicated driving, whether by drugs or alcohol, is completely at odds with the prospect of making New York streets safe for pedestrians and drivers alike.”

Murder charges for traffic killings are rare, and prosecutors usually only apply them to impaired drivers or drivers fleeing police.

In 2011, Vance reduced second-degree murder charges against a driver fleeing police to a manslaughter plea, reportedly after the state’s highest court reversed a conviction in a similar case. The next year, another driver fleeing police pled guilty to a second-degree murder charge brought by Vance and received a sentence of 17 years to life in prison.

Because the driver in this case was impaired and his behavior was so extreme, the charges could stick. Last year, the state’s top court upheld the murder convictions of impaired drivers who displayed “depraved indifference for human life,” which is the standard that will be used in court to weigh Martin’s murder charge.

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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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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:

Read more…

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Barron Lerner: It’s Time to Treat Reckless Driving Like Drunk Driving

The most basic flaw in the New York State traffic justice system is that in most cases it fails to hold motorists accountable for deadly recklessness. Unless a motorist is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, killing someone with a car is usually not considered a crime.

Barron Lerner. Photo: ##http://medicine.med.nyu.edu/medhumanities/featured-writing/lerner-why-history-of-medicine##NYU##

Barron Lerner. Photo: NYU

In a column for the Times, Barron Lerner, whose 9-year-old nephew Cooper Stock was killed by a cab driver in Manhattan this month, says it’s time to treat reckless driving like drunk driving. “Reckless driving, circa 2014, is what drunk driving was prior to 1980: it is poorly defined in the law, sometimes poorly investigated by police and almost never results in a criminal charge,” he writes.

An NYU professor and author of “One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900,” Lerner writes that today’s attitudes toward everyday recklessness resemble societal and legal norms during the decades when efforts to criminalize drunk driving were met with “cultural indifference.”

Well into the 1970s, police and prosecutors looked the other way, seeing drunk drivers either as diseased alcoholics, young men sowing their wild oats or, paradoxically, victims themselves, even if they killed or maimed people. Judges and juries — perhaps because they, too, secretly drank and drove or knew those who did — were reluctant to convict.

Police told family members that their loved ones — the actual victims — had been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Crashes were called accidents.

This is, of course, exactly how law enforcement reacts to crashes like the one that killed Cooper Stock, who was in a crosswalk with his father when both were hit by a cab driver who reportedly took a turn without slowing down. No charges were filed against the driver, and no action was taken against his hack license.

“The police reassured my brother-in-law, Dr. Richard G. Stock, who was holding Cooper’s hand at the time of the crash, that a Breathalyzer done at the scene was negative,” Lerner writes. “Yet merely looking for alcohol or drug involvement by the driver misses the point.”

In the 80s, Lerner writes, collective action by parents and other loved ones, through groups like MADD, forced a “sea change” that brought about laws that toughened penalties and lowered legally acceptable blood alcohol levels. Their activism also attached a social stigma to driving drunk, making the public realize that “drunk drivers were still responsible for the damage they caused, even though the harms they inflicted were unintentional.”

Lerner says a similar shift is needed if New York City is to achieve Vision Zero. “If Cooper died because an impatient or distracted driver made a careless decision, then that driver should be as guilty of a crime as someone who drank alcohol or used drugs before driving,” he writes. “Let’s make destruction caused by irresponsible driving a true crime. And let’s do it soon.”

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Maude Savage and Akkas Ali, Struck by Motorists in 2013, Die From Injuries

The driver of this van barely slowed down as he turned into an occupied crosswalk, striking a senior. Image via Daily News. Video after the jump.

Charged for driving without a license, the maximum penalty against the motorist who fatally struck senior Maude Savage remains 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Image via Daily News

Maude Savage, the 72-year-old who was hit by a motorist in a Brooklyn crosswalk last November, died from her injuries. Though video showed Savage was crossing with the light, charges were not upgraded against the commercial driver who took a corner at speed, striking her a few feet from a grocery store she had just walked out of. After Savage’s death, the maximum penalty against the driver, who was charged the day of the crash with driving without a license, remains 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The crash occurred in the early afternoon of November 25 at Sutter and Euclid Avenues. In a security video, you could see Savage waiting for the pedestrian signal and looking both ways before stepping into the street. When she was midway across, the driver of a van covered in DirecTV logos entered the crosswalk, barely slowing as he made a left-hand turn. Savage tried to get out of his path, but the driver struck her with the front end of the van.

Robert Brown was charged by then-District Attorney Charles Hynes with third degree 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.

Reports in the aftermath of the crash said Savage was hospitalized with head injuries. Though several media outlets covered the crash itself — stories were pegged to the DirecTV angle, though Brown was not a DirecTV employee — we found no follow-up coverage. However, the NYPD November crash report recorded one crash at Euclid and Sutter that month, which resulted in one pedestrian fatality.

Several times in recent years, prosecutors have pursued third degree unlicensed operation, a low-level misdemeanor, as the top charge against unlicensed drivers who kill New York City pedestrians. In 2011, Yolanda Casal and Laurence Renard were fatally struck by unlicensed drivers in separate crashes in Manhattan. Casal and her daughter were hit by a recidivist reckless driver as he backed up to get a parking spot; Renard was hit by a dump truck driver on an Upper East Side corner. In each case, Manhattan DA Cy Vance accepted a guilty plea to third degree unlicensed operation, and each motorist was fined $500.

Brown is next scheduled to appear in court on March 5, according to online court records.

Read more…

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9-Year-Old Boy, Mother, and Senior Killed in Weekend of Motorist Violence

Three pedestrians were fatally struck by motorists over the weekend, bringing to seven the number of people killed while walking in New York City in the first two weeks of 2014.

Twenty pedestrians were killed by city motorists in January 2013, according to NYPD data, and 12 pedestrians and one cyclist died in January 2012.

Cooper Stock. Photo via DNAinfo

Cooper Stock. Photo via DNAinfo

Nine-year-old Cooper Stock was in a crosswalk with his father at West End Avenue and 97th Street  at around 9 p.m. Friday when both were hit by cab driver Koffi Komlani, according to reports. A motorist in a car behind Komlani spoke with the Daily News:

“He had to be distracted because there’s no way he could not see them, if I did,” [Ramon] Gonzalez, 46, said of the 53-year-old cabbie.

“The father grabbed his son. They were both on the hood of the car for a second. The father fell off the passenger side. The son went underneath the driver’s-side tire, first the front one, then the rear.”

Komlani, of West Harriman, didn’t brake until after he’d run over the boy with both wheels, according to Gonzalez, the assistant director of an educational nonprofit who lives in Chelsea.

Richard Stock suffered a leg injury. Cooper died at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital.

Cooper Stock was at least the twelfth child age 14 and under killed by a New York City motorist in the last 12 months, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog. Year after year, traffic crashes remain the leading cause of injury-related death for children in NYC.

From DNAinfo:

The family released a statement about Cooper late Saturday, saying he loved the Yankees, rock and roll, and the Knicks. “Cooper was the life of the party even when there wasn’t a party,” the statement said. “He was light, he was reflective, he was beauty in motion, he was charismatic. He has been described as an old soul, and wise beyond his years.”

Komlani was ticketed for failure to yield on Friday. ”As of now, there are no disciplinary actions available to the TLC,” said Allan Fromberg, spokesperson for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, in an email. ”We’re awaiting the outcome of the NYPD investigation to make a determination of what options are available.”

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Vance: Tour Bus Driver Who Killed Pedestrian Convicted of Manslaughter

A tour bus driver who killed a pedestrian in Hell’s Kitchen while driving drunk has been convicted of manslaughter and homicide.

Victim Timothy White. Photo via ##http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2011/05/08/philadelphia-man-killed-in-tour-bus-accident-in-new-york-city/##KYW-TV##

Victim Timothy White. Photo via KYW-TV

Steve Drappel, now 60, was making a left turn from 47th Street onto Ninth Avenue at around 10 p.m. on May 7, 2011, when he ran over 29-year-old Timothy White, according to published reports and a press release from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.  White, who was in a crosswalk, was dragged for half a block before witnesses alerted Drappel by screaming and banging on the bus.

White was in town from Philadelphia to visit family and was walking to his cousin’s home after dinner, according to a DNAinfo story published the day after the crash.

“He was the perfect son,” his father Robert White, 67, said Sunday from his Pennsylvania home.

The devastated dad said his son had battled health problems and “was an inspiration to all of us.”

“Tim was a hero,” his mom Julia said. “He was a hero to all of us.”

Police found a cup containing vodka next to Drappel’s seat, and an open bottle of vodka in the luggage compartment of the bus, which reports said Drappel admitted was his. His blood alcohol level was .14.

The Post reported that Drappel had been in three crashes since 1997, and had citations for speeding and driving with a suspended license. Drappel was driving a bus owned by TraveLynx, a Florida company, for Chinatown-based tour operator L & L Travel, reports said.

According to the Vance press release, Drappel was convicted this week, following a bench trial in New York State Supreme Court, of second degree vehicular manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and two counts of driving while intoxicated.

Read more…

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Public Still Doesn’t Know Why Cy Vance Failed to Charge in Sian Green Case

Last Friday WNYC ran a piece in which Bronx vehicular crimes chief Joe McCormack explained why he thought Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance failed to file charges against the cab driver who drove onto a Midtown sidewalk and severed the leg of tourist Sian Green. The story offers valuable insight into the mindset of prosecutors, but key questions about the case remain unanswered.

The public still does not know how Cy Vance decided that the driver of this cab, who hit two people and severed a woman's leg, should not be charged. Photo: @BraddJaffy

The public still does not know how Cy Vance decided that the driver of this cab, who hit two people and severed a woman’s leg, should not be charged. Photo: @BraddJaffy

McCormack said that in order to charge Faysal Himon with a crime, the Vance team would have to prove intent. ”What we look at in the criminal arena is when the mistake is greater than ordinary negligence and rises to criminal negligence,” McCormack said. “And what a defendant can be charged with depends on case law.”

Reporter Kate Hinds also points to the “rule of two,” an arbitrary standard 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, as a possible factor in the decision not to charge Himon.

Civil attorney Steve Vaccaro believes Vance might have gotten a conviction on misdemeanor charges — third degree assault and second degree reckless endangerment — that don’t require prosecutors to prove intent. As for case law and the “rule of two,” recent decisions by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, have made it harder for prosecutors to secure ironclad convictions against motorists who injure and kill. But does that mean reckless drivers can’t be held accountable for maiming and killing innocent bystanders?

One Court of Appeals case in particular looms large: People v. Cabrera, which held that reckless driving had to be “morally blameworthy” to sustain a homicide conviction. Maureen McCormick, head vehicular crimes prosecutor in Nassau County, explained the Cabrera ruling to Streetsblog in 2009:

[A]s recently as May 2008, New York’s highest court held that a 17-year-old driver who violated his junior license by driving with four unrelated passengers, without seatbelts, and who also was speeding at 70-72 mph through a curve with a posted caution speed of 40 mph, and who lost control sending the car over an embankment and killing three of his passengers, could not be held criminally liable. This decision alone has resulted in numerous defense motions to have cases dismissed claiming that “speed alone” or any traffic infraction “alone” is not sufficient to sustain criminal negligence.

McCormick continued: “Our position is that this is nonsense. A person driving 100 mph in front of the court on Centre Street in Manhattan at lunch time when the streets are flooded with pedestrians MUST be chargeable with a crime.”

Court precedents do have a chilling effect, but as McCormick indicates, the “rule of two” is a defense strategy. It’s up to prosecutors and police to decide whether they want to cede the argument by never filing charges in the first place.

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Vaccaro: Vance Didn’t Need to Prove “Intent” to Convict Driver in Green Case

Cy Vance’s office does not discuss vehicular crimes cases, even after they are disposed or when no charges are filed. After declining to prosecute the cabbie who drove onto a Midtown sidewalk and severed the leg of Sian Green, the DA’s office issued a short statement, but the only insight into the prosecutors’ reasoning came from the victim’s attorney, who said Vance’s team “indicated that failure to charge was due to lack of evidence regarding the taxi cab driver’s intent during the investigation phase.”

Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who specializes in representing traffic violence victims, said today he believes Vance had a reasonable chance of getting a conviction on charges of third degree assault and second degree reckless endangerment. Both are class A misdemeanors (the most serious misdemeanor category), and according to Vaccaro neither require prosecutors to prove intent.

Here are the relevant sections of state law cited by Vaccaro:

§ 120.00 Assault in the third degree. A person is guilty of assault in the third degree when … with criminal negligence, he causes physical injury to another person by means of a deadly weapon or a dangerous instrument.

§ 120.20 Reckless endangerment in the second degree. 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.

Why didn’t Vance try to secure a conviction on one of these relatively low-level charges? The public may never know.

The statement released by Vance’s office yesterday says only that after an investigation by the DA and NYPD, “we have concluded that criminal charges cannot be filed in this case.” The statement lists the type of evidence reviewed — surveillance video, 911 calls, black box data — but gives no indication why that evidence was found insufficient to support charges.

“This decision has frightening implications,” Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul White told the Times. “Drivers have the most responsibility, because people behind the wheel of one-ton vehicles have the greatest capacity to do harm to others. The law should acknowledge that fact.”

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