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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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Unlicensed, Hit-and-Run Drivers Kill First NYC Pedestrian Victims of 2015

Motorists struck four pedestrians in two crashes in Manhattan and the Bronx over the weekend, killing two victims. One driver in the Bronx was charged with leaving the scene and reckless driving, while another remains at large. The Manhattan motorist, operating a vehicle with TLC plates, was ticketed for driving without a license, though NYPD blamed the victims in the press. The drivers were not charged for causing death and injury by NYPD or district attorneys Cy Vance and Robert Johnson.

Wesley Mensing was killed and Erin Sauchelli injured by the driver of a vehicle with TLC plates. The driver was ticketed for unlicensed driving but was not charged with a crime by NYPD or Manhattan DA Cy Vance. Photo via Post

Wesley Mensing was killed and Erin Sauchelli injured by the driver of a vehicle with TLC plates. The driver was ticketed for unlicensed driving but was not charged with a crime by NYPD or Manhattan DA Cy Vance. Photo via New York Post

At approximately 7:18 p.m. Saturday, Wesley Mensing and Erin Sauchelli were crossing E. 62nd Street at Lexington Avenue north to south when Aliou Diallo, eastbound on 62nd, drove a Mercedes SUV into them, according to NYPD, the Post, and the Daily News.

Mensing, 27, a noted golf instructor who lived in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, died at the scene. He was the first known New York City pedestrian fatality of 2015. Sauchelli, 30, was hospitalized with head and leg injuries.

Diallo was summonsed — but was not charged criminally — for unlicensed driving, NYPD said. Citing unnamed police sources, the Post reported that Mensing and Sauchelli were “not in the crosswalk,” and an NYPD spokesperson told Streetsblog they were crossing E. 62nd between Lexington and Third Avenue. Yet photos of the scene show the SUV sitting on E. 62nd just a few feet from the intersection, which seems to indicate that Mensing and Sauchelli were struck within or very close to the crosswalk.

NYPD has a history of relying solely on driver testimony when investigating pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Since the Right of Way Law took effect last August, expressly making it a misdemeanor offense for motorists to injure or kill people with the right of way, police have repeatedly blamed deceased pedestrians by claiming they were outside a crosswalk when they were struck by motorists.

NYPD had no information on how fast Diallo was driving, or how he failed to see two people in the street in front of him. Regardless of how the crash occurred, it is a crime in New York State to drive a vehicle if you know or have reason to know you don’t have a valid license. The investigation is “ongoing,” according to NYPD.

Also at issue is how an alleged unlicensed driver was allowed to operate a TLC-licensed vehicle. Saturday’s crash marked at least the second time in the past year that an accused unlicensed driver killed a pedestrian or cyclist with a livery cab. Streetsblog has asked the TLC for information on the livery base associated with the SUV Diallo was driving and whether Diallo had a current hack license at the time of the crash.

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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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Cy Vance Files Homicide Charge in Lower East Side Pedestrian Death

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance filed a homicide charge against a driver accused of killing a pedestrian on the Lower East Side in November.

On the evening of November 24, the driver of a BMW sedan hit 57-year-old Robert Perry on the Bowery near Rivington Street, and kept driving until he hit a fire hydrant a block away, according to DNAinfo. Perry reportedly often stayed at the Bowery Mission, which is near the site of the crash.

NYPD arrested Danny Lin, 24, and charged him with homicide and leaving the scene. According to court records, criminally negligent homicide is currently the sole charge against him.

This crash appears to follow a pattern of New York City district attorneys bringing homicide charges against motorists accused of causing death through acts of especially brazen recklessness. According to crash data compiled by Streetsblog, in 2013 city DAs filed homicide charges only twice — once in Brooklyn, once in Queens — against drivers who killed pedestrians or cyclists and were not also charged for other aggravating circumstances, including driving drunk, leaving the scene, striking the victim intentionally, or fleeing police after committing another crime. 

A few hours after Perry was killed, a livery cab driver fatally struck cyclist Shan Zheng at Pitt Street at E. Houston Street. Neither NYPD nor Vance filed charges against the cab driver. Vance did not bring criminal charges against the cab driver who struck and killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock as he and his father crossed the street with the right of way. These are typical outcomes for crashes that result in the death of a New York City cyclist or pedestrian.

In New York State, criminally negligent homicide is a class E felony, the least severe felony category, with sentences ranging from probation to four years imprisonment.

Danny Lin is free on $10,000 bond, court records say, and is next scheduled to appear in court in February.

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Dana Lerner: Cy Vance Botched the Token Case Against My Son’s Killer

The cab driver who killed Cooper Stock is scheduled to be back in court in two months, thanks to what Stock’s mother Dana Lerner termed “inept” handling of the case by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s office.

Meanwhile, Koffi Komlani’s apparent defense — that weather was to blame for the crash — is the same excuse Manhattan prosecutors gave Lerner for not pursuing a criminal case.

Cooper Stock

Cooper Stock

Komlani went before a judge this morning to answer a summons for careless driving, the only charge issued to him after the January crash. Though Komlani hit both Cooper and his father, Richard Stock, as they crossed an Upper West Side street in the crosswalk with the right of way, Vance filed no criminal charges.

Today prosecutors added a summons for failure to yield. Komlani is fighting the tickets, so the case was continued. By the time Komlani is back in court to contest the two traffic summonses, it will have been 13 months since the crash.

Lerner released a statement today, via Transportation Alternatives:

Obviously a failure to yield violation should have been issued to the driver who killed my son, Cooper. It is unbelievable that the ticket was not presented to the driver at the scene when he killed Cooper. My persistence has led to heightened attention to the need for justice in this case — it should not be up to the loved ones of victims to ensure that the justice system does its job. Now my family must endure even more heartache as we wait for February when the driver will be in court again related to this long-overdue charge. Both the NYPD and the district attorney, at the very least, owe me a public explanation for this wrong-doing.

“They’re just so inept,” Lerner told the Post, referring to Vance’s office.

Careless driving carries a maximum penalty of up to 15 days in jail, a fine of up to $750, a license suspension of up to six months, and a drivers’ ed course. The minimum is no penalty. Outside the courtroom, Komlani’s attorney Raymond Colon said Vance has offered Komlani a license suspension and a fine.

Colon said there is video of the crash, but neither he nor Komlani have seen it. ”It was dark,” Colon said. “The weather may have been a little inclement, and there may have been a lot of traffic.”

Lerner told Streetsblog during an interview last summer that, in one of their early meetings, a Vance ADA said it would be difficult to make a case against Komlani because “it was raining” at the time of the crash.

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For Traffic Violence Victims, Cy Vance’s “Moneyball” Still a Field of Dreams

You won’t find much discussion of traffic violence in Chip Brown’s 5,500-word encomium to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, published Wednesday by the New York Times Magazine. Other than noting that dismissals of drunk driving cases are down, according to Vance’s office, Brown doesn’t broach the subject at all.

Despite advances in other areas, there is no evidence that Vance has applied his lauded moon shot ethos to traffic crime. Photo: Brad Aaron

Despite advances in other areas, there is no evidence that Manhattan District Attorney Vance, now in his second term, has applied his moon shot ethos to traffic crime. Photo: Brad Aaron

To rein in gang violence and other street-level crime, Brown writes, the Vance team maintains close contact with NYPD, keeps a database of public and private surveillance cameras to track suspects, and even investigates unreported shootings through social media. ”Their pole star wasn’t convictions but safety, a goal as readily attained by preventing crime as by prosecuting it,” writes Brown.

“We ask ourselves, Are we doing everything possible to reduce crime?” said Vance hire Chauncey Parker, whose job, according to Brown, is “dreaming up ideas, no matter how outlandish, that might reduce crime.”

It’s telling that while diagramming the gee-whiz mechanics behind Vance’s “intelligence-driven” approach to crime fighting, no one from the Vance camp highlights any data-centric techniques the DA’s office has applied to reducing traffic crashes in Manhattan, which still result in thousands of injuries and deaths per year.

Fortunately, a few paragraphs from another story published yesterday, Jill Abramson’s examination of the suffering and grief caused by reckless drivers, and how it is compounded by the failure of New York City law enforcers to seek justice for victims, fill the gap in Brown’s piece nicely.

Abramson cites the death of 9-year-old Cooper Stock, killed last January by a cab driver while in a crosswalk with his father, as one example of a deadly crash that resulted in no charges from Vance.

The most frequent complaint voiced by the families of dead pedestrians is the reluctance of the city’s D.A.s, especially Manhattan’s Cyrus Vance, to file criminal charges against drivers. “In the Cooper Stock case they could have at least suspended the driver’s license of the cab driver,” said attorney Matthew Dawes, “they just don’t have any cojones.”

This is surprising, because Vance made a campaign vow to abrogate the Rule of Two and to be more aggressive. But early in his tenure, his office had an embarrassing defeat in the case of the death of a 68-year-old woman who was killed by a driver while she was bicycling in Chelsea with her husband over the Fourth of July weekend in 2011.

Her name was Marilyn Dershowitz and she was the sister-in-law of famed law professor Alan Dershowitz. The driver, postal worker Ian Clement, had initially left the scene of the crash. He was acquitted by a jury in 2012.

Since then, there haven’t been any high-profile prosecutions by Vance in traffic death cases.

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NYC Motorists Have Killed Five Pedestrians and One Cyclist in 10 Days

At least five pedestrians and one cyclist have been killed by motorists since November 15. Of the six drivers involved, four left the scene. Of the four who were either caught by NYPD or remained at the scene, only one has been charged for causing a death.

One three-hour span on Monday was especially violent. At 6:50 p.m., the driver of a BMW sedan struck 57-year-old Robert Perry on the Bowery near Rivington Street on the Lower East Side. ”The car kept going until it crashed into a fire hydrant a block away at Stanton Street,” reported DNAinfo.

The driver who killed Mohammad Uddin, 14, in Kensington was only charged with leaving the scene. Photo via DNAinfo

The driver who killed Mohammad Uddin, 14, in Kensington was only charged with leaving the scene. Photo via DNAinfo

Perry, who often stayed at the Bowery Mission, was pronounced dead at Lower Manhattan Hospital, according to DNAinfo. Police charged Danny Lin, 24, with homicide and leaving the scene.

Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents the district where Perry was killed, issued a statement Tuesday:

I was encouraged to learn this morning from an NYPD official that the driver who hit and killed Mr. Perry — and who apparently unsuccessfully tried to drive away — was arrested at the scene for criminally negligent homicide by NYPD officers. However, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office will of course still need to file charges against the driver for there to be a real step toward justice in this case. I will be contacting the DA’s office very soon to strongly advocate for the driver to be charged and held fully accountable for this incident.

As of Wednesday morning, Lin’s name did not appear in an online database of court records, though active cases are not always accessible to the public.

“Everyone [at the Mission] knows him,” witness Indio Bryan told DNAinfo. “This has been his home. He eats here, sleeps here. He was a good guy, harmless. He liked jazz a lot.”

Perry was at least the fifth fourth pedestrian to be killed by a motorist this year in the 5th Precinct, where ticketing cyclists is a top priority.

“Mr. Perry’s name must be remembered alongside Sui Leung, Sau Ying Lee and other traffic victims in Lower Manhattan and across the city who simply did not deserve to have their lives ended in this tragic manner,” said Chin. “My thoughts are also with the friends and family of Shan Zheng, the cyclist who was hit and killed by a car last night just outside my district in Lower Manhattan.”

Approximately three hours after Perry was killed, a livery cab driver hit Zheng, 61, as he rode on Pitt Street at E. Houston. Zheng, who lived in Ossining, was pronounced dead at Bellevue, according to the Journal News. NYPD filed no charges against the 50-year-old cab driver, whose name was not released. The crash occurred in the 7th Precinct, in the City Council district represented by Rosie Mendez.

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