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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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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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Queens DA Richard Brown on Driver Who Killed Allison Liao: Accidents Happen

The lead vehicular crimes prosecutor for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown (pictured) says a motorist who was cited by NYPD for failure to yield and careless driving, and who tested positive for alcohol, “had a green light” when he killed 3-year-old Allison Liao and injured her grandmother by striking them in a crosswalk. Brown’s office filed no charges. Photos via WNYC and Queens DA’s office

A letter from District Attorney Richard Brown’s office explaining why no charges were filed against the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao offers disturbing insight into the mindset of prosecutors charged with holding motorists accountable for serious traffic crashes in Queens.

The crash was captured on video. On the afternoon of October 6, 2013, Allison was walking hand in hand with her grandmother in a crosswalk at Main Street and Cherry Avenue in Flushing when the driver approached from behind and to their right. The motorist turned directly into them, striking both with the front corner of his SUV and pulling Allison under the left wheels. Her grandmother, Chin Hua Liao, was injured.

Police summonsed Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh for failure to yield and careless driving. Neither NYPD nor Brown filed criminal charges against him, despite concluding that Allison and Chin Hua had the right of way.

According to a civil suit filed by Chin Hua and Allison’s father, Hsi-Pei Liao, Abu-Zayedeh told police he had consumed two glasses of wine before the crash. Abu-Zayedeh tested positive for alcohol in his bloodstream, the suit says, but his BAC threshold was below the .08 legal limit for driving.

Even with video evidence, unless a driver is drunk, New York City prosecutors rarely charge for injuring and killing pedestrians and cyclists. Brown, for example, filed no charges against a motorist who drove onto a Maspeth sidewalk and hit five children, one of whom died shortly after the crash.

A December 2013 letter to City Council Member Peter Koo from Charles A. Testagrossa [PDF], the assistant district attorney who supervises investigations and prosecutions of fatal crashes in Queens, says the DA didn’t prosecute the driver who killed Allison Liao because he had a green light and stayed at the scene.

Wrote Testagrossa:

As you know, the accident occurred as Allison crossed Main Street in a crosswalk with her grandmother. The motorist who struck her had a valid driver’s license and a green light to make a left turn. The driver remained on the scene and waited for police to arrive. The driver was administered two breathalyzer tests (PBTs) on the scene and the results of the test did not rise to the level of impairment. In fact, the PBT readings were such that, pursuant to Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL) Sect. 1195(2)(b), they were “prima facie evidence that the ability of such person to operate a motor vehicle was not impaired by the consumption of alcohol and that such person was not in an intoxicated condition.” Additionally, there was no evidence of excessive speed or phone usage at the time of the collision.

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NY State DMV Dismisses Tickets of Driver Who Killed Allie Liao [Updated]

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles dismissed summonses for failure to yield and careless driving issued to the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao in 2013. Image via ##https://twitter.com/KeeganNYC/status/530515713405231105##@KeeganNYC##

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles dismissed summonses for failure to yield and careless driving issued to the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao in 2013. Image via @KeeganNYC

Update: Streetsblog has filed a freedom of information request for documents related to the DMV’s dismissal of tickets issued by NYPD to Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh.

An administrative law judge with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles threw out tickets issued by NYPD to the driver who ran over 3-year-old Allison Liao as she and her grandmother walked hand in hand in a Queens crosswalk.

The driver, identified by police as 44-year-old Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, was turning left from Cherry Avenue onto Main Street in Flushing when he hit Allison on the afternoon of October 6, 2013. Though NYPD and the media initially said Allison “broke free” from her grandmother, video of the crash showed the pair walking together as Abu-Zayedeh approached from behind, striking Allison and pulling her underneath the SUV.

Abu-Zayedeh was summonsed for failure to yield and failure to exercise due care. Neither NYPD nor Queens District Attorney Richard Brown filed criminal charges against him for striking Allison. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Brown described the accident as a ‘tragedy’ and said he wouldn’t bring charges.”

On Thursday Allison’s parents, Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao, learned that the DMV dismissed both tickets. The revelation came during a deposition of Abu-Zayedeh, according to attorney Steve Vaccaro, who is representing Tam and Liao in a civil suit. Allison’s family was not contacted by the DMV.

Streetsblog has reported before that, at least in some cases, the DMV adjudication process relies mainly on testimony from drivers involved in fatal crashes, not police reports or other evidence.

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Unlicensed Driver Faces Wrist Slap After Killing Queens Cyclist William Faison

Tiffany Delcia Moore struck and killed William Faison at 228th Street and 120th Avenue in Cambria Heights last Friday. She was charged for driving without a license. Image: Google Maps

Tiffany Delcia Moore struck and killed William Faison at 228th Street and 120th Avenue in Cambria Heights last Friday. She was charged with driving without a license. Image: Google Maps

A motorist who was reportedly driving with a suspended license will likely get off with a slap on the wrist after she killed a cyclist in Queens last week.

Reports say William Faison, 53, was riding south on 228th Street in Cambria Heights at around 8:50 a.m. Friday when 26-year-old Tiffany Delcia Moore hit him with a Kia sedan as she drove west on 120th Avenue.

From the Post:

Craig Henley, a relative of Faison, ran to the scene.

“He tried to open his eyes to see me,” he said. “His mouth wasn’t moving. Then he started moving his mouth, like he was trying to breathe.”

Medics took Faison to Jamaica Hospital, but he couldn’t be saved. His brother Marcus went there to see his body and kissed his forehead, relatives said.

“He was a very good son. He took care of me,” Faison’s mother told the Post. “I don’t know how to feel. He was a loving son.”

The Post reported that Moore “collapsed in horror” after the crash, and “was not believed to have been speeding or on the phone.” She was charged with aggravated unlicensed operation.

“He would still be alive if she was not driving,” said Henley. “You do not drive on a suspended license.”

Aggravated unlicensed operation is a misdemeanor that stipulates that Moore drove without a license when she knew or should have known she didn’t have one. Third degree aggravated unlicensed operation is the default charge against unlicensed drivers who kill cyclists and pedestrians in NYC, and it’s the same charge police and prosecutors apply when an unlicensed driver turns without signaling. It carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

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DA Brown: $500 Fine for Unlicensed Driver Who Failed to Yield, Killing Senior

Update: Pursuant to a plea arrangement with Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, in March Abel Tinoco pled guilty to aggravated unlicensed operation and was fined $500, according to court records.

As NYPD ramps up enforcement against pedestrians who cross mid-block and against the signal, a funeral was held last week for a senior struck in a crosswalk by an accused unlicensed driver making an illegal turn.

Angela Hurtado, 68, was crossing Grand Avenue in Maspeth at around 11:00 a.m. on January 18 when 28-year-old Abel Tinoco made an illegal left turn onto Grand from 69th Place, hitting her with an SUV, according to published reports. She died hours later from head trauma.

Angela Hurtado. Photo via Queens Chronicle

Angela Hurtado. Photo via Queens Courier

Hurtado came to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was 21, according to the Queens Courier. She was a cancer survivor and was working as a housekeeper at 3 World Trade Center on 9/11. Along with area residents, Hurtado’s daughter Zoraya B. Torres said the family wants changes at the intersection where her mother was struck, to prevent another crash.

“My mom was a very humble woman, a good-hearted person and a loving mother,” said Torres. “It’s hard to believe that something so horrible could have happened to her.”

Court records say Tinoco was charged only with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation, an unclassified misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Tinoco’s license had been suspended since last October, according to the criminal complaint filed by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. The complaint did not specify the cause of the suspension.

State Senator Michael Gianaris has introduced a bill to make it a class E felony  to cause serious injury or death while driving without a valid license, so long as the license was suspended or revoked for traffic offenses. A second bill would require drivers with suspended or revoked licenses to surrender their vehicle registrations and license plates. Gianaris held a press conference Sunday at Grand Avenue and 69th Place, calling on Albany lawmakers to pass the bills.

Since Tinoco was driving without a license and made an illegal left turn when he struck Hurtado, he should have been prosecuted for a more serious offense under the so-called “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.

City district attorneys often cite the rule of two as an obstacle to filing charges when a motorist is reported to have broken one traffic law, such as running a stop sign, before killing a pedestrian or cyclist, yet prosecutors routinely fail to adhere to the rule when a driver is accused of breaking two or more traffic laws at the time of a fatal crash.

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Hit-and-Run Driver Not Charged in Death of Queens Pedestrian Mosa Khatun

A hit-and-run driver who fatally struck a woman in Jamaica last night will not be charged with a crime, according to NYPD.

Police say the driver who killed Mosa Khatun returned after leaving the scene, but did not know she had hit someone. No charges were filed. Photo: Daily News

NYPD says the driver who killed Mosa Khatun returned after leaving the scene, but did not know she had hit someone. No charges were filed. Photo: Daily News

Mosa Khatun, 38, was struck by the driver of a Nissan SUV at the corner of Highland Avenue and 169th Street at around 10:20 p.m., according to NYPD and the Daily News:

Emergency responders rushed to the scene and found the woman on the pavement with traumatic injuries to her body, officials said.

She was taken to Queens General Hospital in critical condition, but died there a short time later, officials said.

The News reported that the driver left the scene and “returned about an hour later to talk with police.” An NYPD spokesperson confirmed this account, and said the motorist, whose name is being withheld by the department, “Wasn’t aware she’d hit someone.”

It is not clear why the driver returned to the crash site if she did not know a crash occurred. Nevertheless, while NYPD issued summonses for careless driving and failure to yield to a pedestrian, police filed no charges for leaving the scene. As of this morning, approximately 12 hours after Mosa Khatun was killed, NYPD had concluded its investigation.

Leaving the scene of an injury crash is a class D felony in New York State, punishable by up to seven years in jail. Yet drivers in New York City routinely escape penalty simply by claiming they “didn’t see” their deceased victims. As in this case, rather than allowing the justice system to determine innocence or guilt, police and prosecutors often decline to pursue charges.

According to Transportation Alternatives, of some 300 investigations conducted by the NYPD Collision Investigation Squad in 2012, around 60 involved hit-and-run drivers, and just 15 of those investigations resulted in arrest. In December the City Council passed legislation requiring NYPD to post quarterly reports on hit-and-run crashes that result in “critical” injury.

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Still No Charges From Queens DA Brown Against Driver Who Hit Five Kids

Nearly a month after a motorist mounted a curb and hit a group of kids near a school in Maspeth, no charges have been filed by Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. It appears Brown’s office is leaving it up to NYPD to decide whether prosecutors will pursue a case.

On the morning of September 12, Francis Aung Lu drove a Honda SUV onto the sidewalk at Grand Avenue and 71st Street, near Frank Sansivieri Intermediate School, hitting five children outside a corner deli. Bajram Kacic, 11, suffered a leg injury. Angie Peña, 13, was hospitalized in critical condition. Marina Abadir, 14, suffered head trauma, multiple spine fractures, and required surgery on both elbows. Ashley Khan, 13, who with Abadir was pinned under the vehicle, had fractures to her pelvis and legs, among other injuries.

Michael Gomez, 13, died on September 14. Reports published in the immediate aftermath of the crash indicated Gomez had a “swollen arm.” Media outlets cited anonymous sources who said Gomez died from an asthma attack. The medical examiner’s office did not respond to a Streetsblog query concerning Gomez’s death.

When we asked Brown’s office the day after the crash if  the DA would subpoena the driver’s cell phone records and vehicle EDR data, a spokesperson said no action would be taken unless NYPD determined “criminality.” At that time NYPD said the crash was in the hands of the Collision Investigation Squad.

“The police have made no referrals to the District Attorney’s Office,” said a Brown spokesperson, in an email last Friday. “You will have to contact the NYPD for a status of their investigation.”

Streetsblog has queried the NYPD public information office several times concerning this crash, but we have yet to learn if the CIS investigation is still active. Local Council Member Elizabeth Crowley has called for traffic-calming measures and lower speed limits in the area, but it is still unknown whether law enforcement will hold this driver accountable, or even if phone records or EDR data were collected.

Since September 13, at least seven pedestrians have been killed by drivers in Queens, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog. The victims include a senior and a 3-year-old child — Allison Liao, run over by a motorist in Flushing last Sunday. No charges are known to have been filed in the three of the seven cases where the driver was sober and remained at the scene.

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No Charges for Curb-Jumping Driver Who Killed Michael Munoz in Queens

Photo: New York Post

Another curb-jumping driver has killed a NYC pedestrian, and as usual no charges have been filed by NYPD.

Michael Munoz, 42, was selling water on a Whitestone Expressway service road at 20th Avenue, in Queens, when he was struck at around 2:15 p.m. Monday. From WABC:

The 78-year-old driver was in a black Toyota Camry when investigators say for one reason or another, the driver lost control of the vehicle and slammed into Munoz and a steel post that holds a gate entering a corporate plaza.

The car hit with such force that it nearly pushed the post out of the asphalt.

Munoz died at New York Hospital in Queens. The driver and a passenger were treated for injuries.

Michael Munoz. Photo via NY Post

Neither police nor WABC reporter Joe Torres are apparently interested in why the driver “lost control,” but Torres does include this bit of victim-blaming: “Eyewitness News has learned that Munoz sold water not just from the sidewalk, but also from right on the service road.”

At least nine NYC pedestrians have died in 2013 after motorists drove onto sidewalks, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog, and countless victims have sustained life-altering injuries. Unless a driver is drunk or fleeing police, curb-jump crashes, no matter how severe, rarely result in criminal charges. City Council Member Mark Weprin is exploring the possibility of legislation that would make it a crime to drive on a New York City sidewalk.

Reports say Munoz suffered a serious head injury, and that a witness performed CPR until responders arrived. He lived in a nearby hotel with his father, and was selling bottles of water to motorists after he lost his job as a tennis coach, according to the Queens Courier and the Post.

The victim’s brother told WABC that their mother was killed by a driver years ago. “I’m angry but that’s not gonna do nothing, I’m more sad because I’m not going to see my brother again,” said Raphael Munoz. “We were just making plans to go see my mother at the graveyard.”

Less than four hours after the crash, the Post reported that, according to NYPD, “no criminality” is suspected.

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CIS Investigating Crash That Maimed Three Kids; So Far, Richard Brown Is Not

NYPD says the Collision Investigation Squad is investigating the Thursday curb-jump crash that injured five children in Maspeth, but District Attorney Richard Brown’s office says no subpoenas for cell phone records or EDR data have been issued, as police have determined there is “no criminality.” At least three of the victims remain in the hospital with serious injuries.

Richard Brown's office says the DA is not attempting to get driver Francis-Aung Lu's cell phone records, or EDR data from his vehicle. Photo: Daily News

At 7:49 a.m. yesterday, a driver identified by the Daily News and the Post as Francis-Aung Lu drove a Honda SUV onto the sidewalk at Grand Avenue and 71st Street, near Frank Sansivieri Intermediate School, striking five kids outside a corner deli. Lu’s vehicle had to be lifted off two girls.

Media reports said Lu was dropping off his child and attempting to park. Reports said police did not expect to file charges, but NYPD told us this morning that, while Lu has not been charged or summonsed, the case is still open, and is in the hands of CIS.

This contradicts information from Brown’s office. When Streetsblog asked, via email, if the DA would subpoena the driver’s phone records and vehicle EDR data, a spokesperson replied: “The police have investigated the matter and deemed there was no criminality involved. As such, we would not issue a subpoena.”

Informed that NYPD said the case is still open, the spokesperson wrote: “The information I have is that the police have so far deemed it non criminal. If that should change we would, of course, review the matter.”

Whatever NYPD is doing to hold this reckless motorist accountable for injuring five schoolchildren, it’s pretty clear that so far Richard Brown is doing nothing.

Despite initial reports that downplayed the victims’ injuries, the Daily News says 13-year-old Angie Pena, the first victim Lu hit, is in critical condition. “The car smashed into her and hurt her really badly,” her father said.

Marina Abadir, 14, suffered head trauma, multiple spine fractures, and had surgery on both elbows. “They’re not really sure how many bones are fractured in her body,” said Sherif El Gawly, Abadir’s uncle.

Ashley Khan, 13, who like Abadir was pinned under the vehicle, has fractures to her pelvis and legs. Khan’s arterial blood flow was affected, the News says, and she has numbness in her leg.

Meanwhile, DNAinfo reports that I.S. 73 principal Camillo Turriciano sent out a letter yesterday advising parents not to allow kids to use electronic devices on their way to school:

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