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Here's Why Drivers Get Away With Murder In NYC

The Gothamist: Here's Why Drivers Get Away With Murder In NYC

This morning the City Council grilled representatives from the NYPD on why so few drivers face criminal charges after killing or maiming pedestrians and cyclists. The hearing room was so packed that it overflowed into a second room, which also swelled over capacity—the heavy turnout on a weekday morning suggests the NYPD's handling of crash investigations is an increasingly hot topic. The department has been widely criticized for failing to issue criminal charges to drivers after serious accidents, as well as withholding the most basic details about their investigations. Today Councilmembers tried to understand why so many drivers get away with murder.

More New Yorkers are killed every year by motor vehicles than are murdered by guns, said Councilmember James Vacca, who kicked off the hearing by declaring, "We don't accept gun violence as a way to die, and we shouldn't accept traffic deaths either." Vacca's first question to Deputy Chief John Cassidy, the NYPD Chief of Transportation, was about speeding, and how often drivers caught speeding are charged with reckless endangerment. The answer came not from Cassidy, but from Susan Petito, an NYPD attorney, who politely explained that they simply don't know, because reckless endangerment charges "are not segregated in the database" and can't be easily found.

The NYPD reps frequently cited their inability to search for data during the hearing. At the same time, the department touted its TrafficStat data, which Chief Cassidy argued has enabled the department to reduce traffic fatalities by 39% over the past decade, through targeted enforcement of accident-prone areas. But when Councilmember Pete Vallone wanted to know how many drivers got criminal charges after non-fatal accidents, he was greeted with a long pause. "Not sure we can provide those numbers," said the NYPD reps. "That would require a hand search. Because reckless endangerment charges involve a narrative."

Here's what we do know, and it helps explain why so many drivers get away with murder:

  • The NYPD issued more summonses to cyclists than truck drivers last year: truckers got 14,962 moving violation summonses and 10,415 Criminal Court summonses, while cyclists got 13,743 moving violation summonses and a whopping 34,813 Criminal Court summonses. Priorities!
  • The NYPD Accident Investigation Squad [AIS] only has 19 detectives, three sergeants, and one lieutenant, but is responsible for investigating fatal accidents for the entire city. But don't worry, there's always at least one detective on duty at all times.
  • The AIS will only investigate accidents in which the victim dies or seems likely to die. If you get hit by a driver and end up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, there's no AIS investigation. The patrol officers will fill out an accident report, and traffic tickets might be issued, but there will never be an in-depth investigation or follow-up.
  • 241 pedestrians or cyclists were killed by drivers last year. Only 17 of the drivers responsible faced criminal charges.
  • Asked how many criminal charges were filed against drivers in non-fatal accidents, the NYPD reps said they were not aware of any.
  • Hayley and Diego's Laws were created to empower the NYPD to issue "careless driving" charges, but the NYPD says judges have repeatedly thrown out these charges on the grounds that an officer has to personally witness the accident in order to file the charge.

And because traffic court judges have been throwing out "careless driving" tickets, the NYPD says they've instructed patrolmen not to issue them. Only the AIS is currently authorized to file charges under Hayley and Diego's law, and since AIS only investigates fatal accidents, the law hasn't done much good.

Councilmember Brad Lander was particularly galled by this, asking the NYPD reps, "More than 3,000 crashes last year led to serious injury, and yet patrolmen can't write a ticket [under Hayley and Diego's law]?"

Councilmember Vacca recommended new legislation authorizing the NYPD to seize vehicles operated by speeding and reckless drivers. And Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White called for a task force "to propose new rules that the Police Department can implement to bring justice to crash victims and their families and reap cost savings for the City of New York. As long as the default response to a motor vehicle crash is 'accidents happen,' the behaviors that are killing and injuring people will continue."

Also in attendance were the relatives of killed or injured cyclists, including Erika Lefevre, the mother of Mathieu Lefevre, an artist who was killed by a truck driver who left the scene of the accident in Williamsburg and did not face any criminal charges. (The Brooklyn DA is now conducting an independent investigation to determine if serious charges are warranted.) Lefevre, who had to sue the NYPD to release information about the AIS's sloppy investigation, told the City Council, "The only person the NYPD showed courtesy, professionalism, and respect towards was the driver who ran over Mathieu."

And Michelle Matson, a cyclist who barely survived a hit-and-run accident in Greenpoint that broke her spine and shattered her leg, served as a living example of the NYPD's poor investigation procedures. Because Matson and her boyfriend, who was also struck, were deemed not likely to die, AIS was not called to investigate, and no charges were ever filed. Today Matson said:

The car that struck us was found quickly. It was abandoned a couple of blocks from the site of the crash. I thought this was good news. I was later told by the detective assigned to our case that the owner of the car claimed to have an alibi: the owner of the car says that he drove to a bar, and drank at that establishment for several hours. At some point, the car owner claims to have lost his keys and says that he then walked home. Coincidentally, the crash site was several blocks from this mans house. The owner of the car was never penalized in any way.

Every time I called the detective I became more depressed. He was reluctant to answer any of my questions, and when he did the news was always bad. I asked if they had searched for clues in the car- they hadn't and wouldn't. I asked if they questioned the witnesses- they said it was pointless. I asked if they had canvassed for video in any of the two dozen surveillance cameras along the road near the crash site- they had not. The detective never even visited the crash site though it was two blocks from his precinct's station. When I asked these questions the detective would get defensive, he would say- "Are you trying to tell me how to do my job?" Eventually I gave up. I stopped calling after the detective answered my inquiries by saying- "Listen, you should be lucky you're alive."

And he is right. I am lucky to be alive. It's miraculous that my brain is unharmed and that my body could be repaired. I have metal plates, screws, and a long rod running through my leg- I might not be able to run, but I can walk. I have numbness in my fingers, and experience periods of intense dizziness but I am able to live my life and tell my story. However I will never have justice. If I had died, there would have been an investigation. The police would have thoroughly questioned the witnesses, they would have canvassed for video, they would have photographed the crime scene and carefully examined the car. There would have been justice.

Last week, in an attempt to empower patrol officers in investigations such as these, Senator Daniel Squadron and Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh announced new legislation to strengthen 'Hayley and Diego's Law' (Vehicle and Traffic Law 1146). Their legislation would give police unambiguous authority to issue a VTL 1146 summons, even if the officer was not present at the time of the crash, as long as the officer has reasonable cause to believe the violation was committed by the driver.

"The NYPD is among the most sophisticated law enforcement operations in the country," concluded White, the director of Transportation Alternatives. "It’s the sixth largest standing army in the world, it has officers stationed in scores of foreign nations and it can shoot down small aircraft. The question for us today is if its officers can do more to keep New Yorkers safe on our own streets and deter drivers from killing hundreds and injuring thousands of innocent people every year?"