Talking Traffic Justice With Leslie Crocker Snyder

Having observed New York City traffic enforcement pretty closely these last three years as editor of Streetsblog, I can safely offer the following advice to would-be murderers: If you ever need to kill someone in New York City, do it with a car.

As long as you are sober and licensed, you can go ahead and run over a 4-year-old and his babysitter walking in the crosswalk and drive off with nothing more than a failure-to-yield summons. You can plow your 2008 Ranger Rover into a bike commuter at a busy intersection and count on the NYPD only to interview the passengers in your vehicle, your buddies, before closing the case and letting you drive home despite numerous prior convictions on your driving record. You can rip down the narrow streets of Lower Manhattan at 60 mph, kill a woman, flee the scene, refuse to take a Breathalyzer test and get a plea deal for a mere eight weekends in jail because the victim happened to have a couple of drinks before she got in the way of your speeding Mercedes SUV. You can even let your van slam into a class of preschoolers walking on the sidewalk with their teachers, kill two of them, traumatize the rest, and be assured that the NYPD, the District Attorney and the local media will treat the case not as manslaughter or negligent homicide, but as an "accident."

Leslie_Crocker_Snyder.jpgWhen a construction crane falls or a New York Giants wide receiver accidentally discharges his gun, New York City’s law enforcement community flies into a frenzy of justice-seeking. But when the killing is done by a sober, licensed driver, you can pretty much hear crickets chirping at the District Attorney’s office. Though the total number of traffic fatalities and injuries has declined in recent years, for the friends and families of the 271 people killed by automobiles on New York City streets in 2007, the concept of "traffic justice" was virtually non-existent.

With Manhattan’s 89-year-old District Attorney Robert Morgenthau finally stepping down, this year’s campaign to succeed him is a great opportunity to make sure the next DA is committed to doing a better job of protecting New Yorkers from reckless and negligent drivers. Streetsblog met with Manhattan District Attorney candidate Leslie Crocker Snyder to learn more about where she stands when it comes to traffic justice.

* * * * *

Though Snyder acknowledged that she has "never been an expert in traffic-related issues" she said the horrific killings of preschoolers Diego Martinez and Hayley Ng in Chinatown have brought these issues to her attention and she is "learning more."

She believes the Manhattan DA’s office has become "stale and reactive" and non-responsive to community concerns with the same man at the helm for 35 years. Rather than ignore traffic fatalities as Morgenthau has done, Snyder would bring killer-driver cases before grand juries. "I would want a grand jury to know the law of criminally negligent homicide, vehicular assault and reckless endangerment," she said.

Even when the law prevents her from pursuing criminal prosecution, Snyder said, "I would meet with the families. I would hear their grief as a mother" and, at the very least, explain to them what her office can and can not do for them. "You have to be a human being and acknowledge that these families must be going through hell."

Snyder said that the biggest traffic safety complaint she hears from community leaders these days is not about reckless motorists but "bicyclists being dangerous" and "messengers running us over." If she is elected DA, she invites livable streets advocates to educate her on the issues and "meet with me regularly and make sure I’m staying on top of it."

Here is an edited transcript of my interview with her:

Aaron Naparstek: We see a lot of cases
in New York City where motorists are killing pedestrians and cyclists
and basically just being put back in the driver’s seat and driving
away with little more than a failure-to-yield summons. What can be done to change that?

You have to be a human being and acknowledge that these families must be going through hell. Why wouldn’t you meet with them and explain what your office is doing?

Leslie Crocker Snyder: I think a lot can be
done. This issue fits into my whole theme which is that this has been
a great office — I was a member of it some years ago as a young assistant
DA — but it’s gone completely stale and reactive as opposed to proactive.

Frankly I really haven’t
spent a lot of time on traffic issues, but they are important. I’m
hearing over and over again that messengers are running us over, bicyclists
being dangerous, pedestrians are having a lot of issues and I didn’t
realize until fairly recently how important this is
to people and how much of an issue it is.

Now, I know that you are
concerned about the Chinatown situation. Obviously I don’t know
all the facts, but the obvious question is always is there any criminal liability when
something like this happens. So, there are several things
that I would do if I were DA. One, I would present all of the
evidence to a grand jury, and that way all sides could be heard. I can’t tell you that
I have a conclusion about whether there is criminal liability because
it can be very difficult to prosecute someone criminally in this situation. But I’d certainly want the grand jury to know the law of criminally
negligent homicide, vehicular assault, reckless endangerment, and ultimately
of course we would also know as DAs whether we felt that it was criminal
liability. But the reason to present it to a grand jury is, number
one, everyone is heard, which is extremely important, and number two, if
there is no criminal liability as found by a grand jury, the grand jury
has the ability to issue an extensive report to establish the issues in case like this.

AN: We should back up to one
thing that you said at the top. You mentioned that you hear a lot about bike messengers endangering pedestrians. Do you hear more complaints
about cyclists violating the law than motorists?

LCS: Thus far I’ve heard more
about bikes.

AN: So, what do you hear?

LCS: I’ve heard that there’s
a general feeling in a variety of communities that bicyclists just don’t
follow any rules. They do what they want and are putting pedestrians
in danger. It really hasn’t gone beyond that point but certain
communities feel that it’s a major issue. Now what can the DA do about
it? Again it depends on the situation. We don’t enforce traffic,
we don’t give summonses, so part of it would be working with the police
department to make certain that issues like that are taken seriously.

Second, if a messenger
or delivery person hits somebody the DA has to take that very seriously
and do something about it. You have to send a message, as is happening
in Nassau County
where, for example, if you have that extra drink and
you’re stopped you face dire consequences. So, people should realize
the Manhattan DA is going to take a great interest in both pedestrian-vehicular accidents and pedestrian-bicyclist accidents.

If there’s a death that’s questionable in Manhattan the
DA should at least look into it and see whether there’s something that
can be done about it.

AN: Looking at your platform, you talk about protecting New Yorkers from terrorism, gangs, violent crime and domestic violence but I suspect that, statistically speaking, there’s a better chance that a Manhattanite will be hurt or killed by a stranger in a car than a stranger with a gun. Why don’t we see traffic justice as an issue on your web site?

LCS: I think it’s something I would discuss more in the future because, frankly, I’m just learning more about it over these last few months. My expertise is more in the areas of rape, murder, white collar crime, organized crime and drug-related issues. I’ve never been an expert in traffic-related issues but I’m learning more and I will be reading your blog because, obviously — the Chinatown incident. Anything like that where kids die and you’re a parent — I guess you don’t have to be a parent — but as a parent it’s just the worst thing.

The point is my mind is open. I’m learning something I really didn’t know that much about. But I certainly know about prosecuting criminals and I know what a DA can do in terms of presenting situations to a grand jury. I also know that you have to be a human being and acknowledge that these families must be going through hell so why wouldn’t you meet with them and explain what your office is doing one way or another? Even if you can’t prosecute criminally, explain it to these poor people.

AN: Let me run a specific
case by you to get a sense of how you would handle it as DA. Last
August, a 31-year-old cyclist named Rasha Shamoon was struck and killed
at the intersection of Delancey and Bowery. She was a regular bike commuter,
known for being responsible and safety-conscious. Her bike was plastered with reflective tape and she wore a helmet. She was hit by
a 21-year-old man driving a borrowed 2008 Ranger Rover who had already racked up six prior traffic convictions and one personal injury case in the three-and-a-half years he’d been legally driving. According to the police report [download it, it’ll make your blood boil],
the only witnesses interviewed were the driver’s friends, the two
passengers in the Range Rover. Based on their testimony that Shamoon had run the red light at this
very busy, dangerous intersection the police assigned blame to the
cyclist. As Rasha Shamoon lay dying in a hospital bed, the police put
the driver back in his Range Rover, he drove home and that was that. DA
Morgenthau didn’t have anything to say about it and to the NYPD the
case was closed. I spoke with the family and they feel a real injustice
was done in the way their daughter’s death was treated by the
authorities. I’ll just add that while we don’t know what really
happened out there, as a bike commuter myself, I just find it hard to believe that an experienced cyclist would run the red light at Delancey
and Bowery, particularly at night. It seems profoundly wrong for the police to have assigned blame to the victim having only interviewed the passengers of the car that did the killing.

As soon as I hear that people are blaming the victim — I hate that. Let’s look at the defendant’s conduct.

LCS: Without knowing all the
facts, I can’t tell you exactly what I would do. I would certainly
want to investigate any death. Certainly whatever reports the NYPD did
would be highly relevant, but I would conduct an independent investigation.
Some responsible DA in my office would look into it and I’d want a
personal report.

If there’s a death that’s
questionable in Manhattan the DA should at least look into it and see
whether there’s something that can be done about it. I mean maybe the
answer would be there isn’t anything that can be done criminally,
but the answer might be “Yes, there is.” Also I’m extremely disturbed
by this person’s driving history, as you describe it. At the very
minimum maybe there’s some reckless driving or reckless endangerment
charge. You don’t want someone driving who has five moving violations.
That’s an outrage.

AN: It is very difficult to get access to police reports on car crash cases. I can
go and see in my neighborhood how many rapes and murders and robberies
and car thefts there were — it’s all in CompStat, it’s all on the precinct web sites…

LCS: …but you’re not going
to find out about the car accidents, right? I think what at the very
least can be done is if you have a DA who is responsive, you can have
a meeting with the DA and the DA can arrange a meeting with the police
department and the traffic enforcement people and try to broker a policy. I can’t say that it would happen, but there’s
no security issue involved, there’s absolutely no reason why that
information shouldn’t be available on a web site. I don’t think
people have paid any attention to it.

AN: It often appears that law enforcement doesn’t want to
pursue these traffic justice cases because the DAs feel like they’re not going to get a win, the
state laws are stacked against the victim to some extent. We wrote about
a case where a woman named Florence Cioffi was run down in Lower Manhattan
by a guy named George Anderson
. He was driving 60 miles an hour in a
Mercedes SUV. He fled the scene. He eventually came back and refused
to submit to a Breathalyzer test. The woman whom he hit was crossing
the street, and she was also found to be intoxicated, so the Manhattan
DA’s office chose to plead out the case — let Anderson off with a
charge of DUI and leaving the scene of the accident. Anderson got 16 days in jail, eight weekends. Again, Cioffi’s family felt that this was profoundly unjust. What would you
do there?

LCS: That seems outrageous
on the face of it, but as a lawyer I have to say I really have to know
all the factors. You’re reading me a newspaper account. Assuming
all those facts to be true then I think it sounds outrageous, but you
have to know all the facts and you have to know what the applicable
law is. So for example there might be situations which shock us
where there’s no criminal liability, where it’s a genuine accident. But the idea is the Manhattan DA, with something that seems that outrageous,
should be doing everything to make certain that if there should be a
prosecution, it’s done. It sounds awfully lenient to me, it
sounds awfully inappropriate. If she was drunk but didn’t do
anything that she shouldn’t have done, and this guy was drunk and
killed her, why isn’t that a very serious crime? Why does her being
drunk have anything to do with his behavior? So I’d have to know what
was her behavior. Did it just turn out that she in fact had a high blood
alcohol, I mean that’s totally irrelevant. It actually sounds something
like the rape shield law.

AN: Can you remind us what
that is?

LCS: Sure. I co-authored the rape shield law. It protects the
victim from any sex crime from having to go into details about her prior
irrelevant sexual history. So here, for example, are we putting
the victim on trial? Why does the fact that the victim was drunk have
any impact on how we treat the defendant, unless there’s something else
she did while drunk that I don’t know about from that article. To
me, as soon as I hear that people are blaming the victim — because
that’s what happened in my early days as a prosecutor, especially
in sex crimes, it was always blame the victim, put the victim on trial
— I hate that. Let’s look at the defendant’s conduct. What did this person who was driving drunk — why was he given
a deal like that? Maybe there’s an answer, maybe there isn’t,
but it doesn’t appear to be one on the face of it.

  • Good news, and good reporting.

  • Great article. Disturbing and aggravating, but good.

    I lived in Georgia in the late 80’s, early 90’s. I forget the specific details, but a man killed his ex-wife with his truck in north Georgia. The most he could possibly have faced was five years in prison. The sheriff in that county actually said, “If you want to kill someone in Georgia, use your car, you’ll get away with it.” Had he so much as gotten out and slapped her he could’ve face more prison time that what he got. The courts treat any deaths by vehicle as a random, unfortunate accident. And then we wonder why drivers aren’t more careful and attentive.

  • rex

    I am encouraged that Ms Crocker took the time to do this interview. Unfortunately, DA’s prosecute what is popular to prosecute, and grand juries are made up of citizens whos’ sensibilities are by definition popular. I applaud Ms Crocker’s willingness to bring these cases before a grand jury, but if the public’s perception is that bikes are more of menace than cars, then justice is a long way down the road.

  • Shemp

    This kind of coverage and discussion is a huge service to the movement for better, safer streets in New York. The advocacy community here really needs to get down in the weeds and talk about why we have such an appalling lack of traffic law enforcement here and this does it. Pushing on NYPD and how the department’s own car culture influences how it performs in this regard is another critical piece.

  • This interview is important — perhaps even a milestone. Aaron obviously came well-prepared, his questions were extraordinarily cogent and probably had a great deal to do with Crocker’s promising remarks.

    The one thing that Aaron might have done differently was to reframe his upfront question, “… Do you hear more complaints about cyclists violating the law than motorists?” Given how we cyclists (myself included) tend to treat traffic signals as advisory rather than mandatory, we’ll do better if we frame driver behavior in terms of endangering people rather than violating laws per se.

    I’m especially glad that Aaron posed the question, “Why don’t we see traffic justice as an issue on your web site?” Crocker’s answer (essentially, “I know about murder, rape, drugs but not about traffic violence”) shows we have a lot of educating to do.

    Anyway, this is a terrific piece of work by Aaron and Streetsblog. I’m awed and grateful.

  • Excellent reporting. She seemed too eager to outline prosecutor’s limitations to bringing criminal driving behavior to trial; on the other hand, she was willing to say that if a cyclist “hits somebody the DA has to take that very seriously and do something.” But I’m somewhat encouraged by her willingness to talk with streetsblog, her willingness to learn about traffic issues, and her inclination not to blame the victim.

  • Aaron,

    Great job. I was riveted – reading every word of the transcript. I think Ms. Crocker is in a good mindset now – she’s listening and obviously wants the DA office to become more effective. We need to continue to drive home the fact that – yes – someone is as likely to killed by a stranger in a car, then they are murdered by a stranger. Last year NYC again had around 500 killings, but if you look at a site like The Murder Book (http://tinyurl.com/co7djv) over half the women in NYC murdered were victims of their partners. A good percentage of men also knew their killers or associated with them.

    So with over 100+ pedestrians killed each year, you really are getting close to a ratio of it being as dangerous to be killed with a weapon (traditional thinking) as it is with a car (also a weapon.)

    Load up the stats folks, I am sure people will be reading today.

  • Chris in Sacramento

    The issue of traffic justice apparently has the attention of one James Oberstar. As a political figure, Snyder could do worse than to make herself visible on this issue and useful to the Chairman.

  • fdr

    Snyder is running as the anti-Morgenthau. If Morgenthau had been aggressive in prosecuting motorists, she would be criticizing him for it.

  • Ms. Snyder, don’t worry–you don’t have to be an expert in traffic issues to look at existing laws and determine that the kind of crashes you’ll hear about on Streetsblog at least deserve a grand jury to consider things like criminal negligence. Things like speeding and leaving vehicles unattended are already illegal; so is plain old careless driving. Because of that, I’d bet you’ll find it easier than you think to at least bring charges against drivers who injure or kill.

    Whoever the next DA is, if they’re proactive on this, it will do more than improve the promise of justice for victims and their families. For every grand jury who hears one of these cases, there’s 23 more citizens who now know more about traffic laws, and whatever they decide, they’ll have heard about injured or grieving people, and they’ll have heard lawyers making their best arguments to show that a driver is the responsible party.

    The families of these victims are not the only ones who deserve a “human being’s” consideration on this. All of us are more likely to become victims, as long as these drivers face no consequences. As a city, we could, with the help of a good DA, really do something to reduce the number of grieving families, and reduce the danger.

    Whether Ms. Snyder wins or not, I agree with Charles Komanoff, this interview might indeed turn out to be a milestone. I hope it does.

  • Glenn

    Nice job Aaron. This interview just shows how important all the different pieces are and how they could fit together for a cohesive public safety effort to reduce traffic deaths and injuries to all users of the streets.

    Police will more thoroughly investigate traffic accidents if they think the DAs will prosecute.

    DAs will prosecute more cases if they have more evidence available.

    Grand juries will move cases forward if the DAs can make their cases stronger and more compelling (and not let defendants blame the victims).

    More convictions, more high penalty moving violations issued, more licenses suspended = less deaths

    Advocacy is at the root of all of these.

  • attorney at law

    Folks,

    She is bad news. She is pro-death penalty and was known in the Courts as the worst type of hanging judge.
    Insiders know her as a sadist, who would taunt defendants instead of combining compassion with justice.

    She comes from wealthy Shaker Heights, Ohio, born with a silver spoon in her mouth and disdains the poor. Think Dick Cheney.

    Don’t fall for her b.s. here. She is evil. You don’t want to be a defendant, ladies and gentlemen, with her as D.A.

    Do let your ideology cloud your mercy.

  • attorney at law

    Last sentence should be, “DON’T let your ideology cloud your mercy.”

  • I’m encouraged by the fact that Ms. Snyder felt that she needed to talk to Streetsblog (unless she just saw that you were criticizing Morgenthau), but not really by anything that she said.

    The fact that she thought we would be sympathetic to her criticism of cyclists just shows she didn’t do her homework. The one big idea that she had on her own for traffic safety is to “send a message” to cyclists? That’s just insane*.

    But hey, why take the time to think up a coherent policy on this issue? It’s only the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S. Much better to draw something up about terrorism, because the DA’s office has a lot more to do with that than the Federal Government. Ridiculous.

    She’s good on sexual assault, and pretty much literally nothing else, from drug laws to the death penalty. And she’s still running as the anti-Morgenthau, even though he’s not running this year. Let’s hope there are some other serious candidates out there. Some good ones.

    *Unsafe bike messengers is a workers’ rights issue. There are certainly some daredevil messengers, but I’m guessing most would rather not be risking their lives if they didn’t feel their incomes depended on it.

  • streetsbloggy/TA types should be lobbying all the Manhattan DA candidates hard. this is hugely important. aside from this, there likely won’t be many points of distinction among the candidates on anything of any practical significance to average manhattanites. (death penalty, for instance — crocker-snyder wouldn’t be allowed to execute anyone no matter how she feels about it.) the election would turn on the candidates’ relative popularity among the legal community and the city’s political elites. but the idea that some of these traffic fatalities routinely brushed off as “accidents” might actually be more justly prosecuted as crimes has the potential to present a meaningful choice to voters. a candidate might seize on the issue as a potential break-through, or they all might shy away from taking a position, afraid of sticking their necks out.

    i have a feeling that all the candidates will choose the cautious route but, for livable streets advocates, even being on the radar as an identifiable constituency/interest group is a worthwhile goal. and in the event that one of the candidates actively courts our votes (panders to us, basically) — that would be reason enough to actively donate, fundraise, campaign, and volunteer for such a candidate.

    you should be lining up an interview with Cy Vance asap.

  • rufustfyrfly, I really think you nailed it.

    “Unsafe bike messengers is a workers’ rights issue. There are certainly some daredevil messengers, but I’m guessing most would rather not be risking their lives if they didn’t feel their incomes depended on it.”

    Indeed. The pay for these jobs is not livable.