Maureen McCormick: How Nassau Got Serious About Traffic Crime

It happened again last Friday. Keston Brown was at the wheel of a Gristedes van on E. 37th Street when he jumped the curb and ran over two women. Miraculously, one of them, Tassia Katsiambanis, survived. But her co-worker Ysemny Ramos, a young mother planning that night’s celebration of her wedding anniversary and the upcoming birth of another child, died at the scene. Brown was found to be intoxicated and was charged with DWI, manslaughter and assault.

alg_van_family.jpgYsemny Ramos, center, died at the hands of a drunk driver. Will her killer face justice, or a slap on the wrist? Photo: Daily News

About an hour earlier on the Upper West Side, a yellow cab driver jumped the curb at Amsterdam and W. 106th Street, careening onto the sidewalk and into a pizzeria. Seven people were injured, one critically. Despite this, and though witnesses said he was racing another car to the intersection before the crash, the cabbie walked away scot-free.

How can this be? How can New York drivers destroy, kill and maim with impunity — almost always when sober, and even if, in some cases, they aren’t?

In part two of our interview with veteran vehicular crimes prosecutor Maureen McCormick (read part one here), the former Brooklyn ADA, now with Nassau County, offers more insight into the state of traffic justice in New York State, and describes how she and others in the prosecutorial community are working to strengthen laws that deal with negligent drivers.

Brad Aaron: There were a couple of recent high-profile cases in which Manhattan
pedestrians were killed by hit-and-run drunk drivers. One case ended
with a guilty plea resulting in a two year prison sentence, while in
the other, also following a plea, the driver received a sentence of
just 15 days. Nassau County, meanwhile, is successfully prosecuting
killer drunk drivers for murder, with commensurate sentencing. In your
experience, what could explain such discrepancies?

Maureen McCormick: [Nassau] District
Attorney Kathleen Rice has made traffic justice one of her top
priorities. She campaigned on holding DWI defendants accountable for
their actions and she has created policies and pursued prosecutions
that demonstrate her continued commitment to this issue. In the first
year she took office she held 66 percent of Driving While Intoxicated
(DWI) offenders to the top count of their charges while the New York
State average was 44 percent. She increased jail sentences from 10
percent to 16 percent and she has maintained an overall conviction rate
of 94 percent.

The DWI/murder case against Martin Heidgen was recently
the subject of a "60 Minutes" report. Heidgen drove more than three
miles the wrong way on the Meadowbrook Parkway with a blood alcohol
concentration of .28 before slamming head on into a wedding limousine,
killing the driver, 59-year-old Stanley Rabinowitz, and decapitating
7-year-old flower girl Katie Flynn. Heidgen was convicted of depraved
indifference murder in 2006 and sentenced to 18 years to life.

In Nassau the detectives contact me directly, around the clock. Decisions about warrants, scene preservation, charges, etc. are discussed. An assistant district attorney responds to the crash scene most of the time.

District
Attorney Rice established the first Vehicular Crimes Bureau on Long
Island. The bureau is designed to bring together training, experience
and expertise in the fields of drunk driving and vehicular crimes. It
is important to note that the district attorney’s emphasis on traffic
justice extends beyond the drunk driver to reckless and criminally
negligent drivers as well. This past fall she prosecuted 20-year-old
Mayer Sadian for killing pedestrian Dr. Jeffrey Siegel. The defendant
was not accused of being drunk (although he left the scene so it
remains unknown). The defendant was speeding during a rainstorm in an
area with restaurants and heavy pedestrian traffic at dinner time. Dr.
Siegel was crossing between intersections when he was struck and
dismembered by the car. The district attorney tried the case as a
manslaughter. The jury could not reach a verdict on manslaughter but
found him guilty of criminally negligent homicide and leaving the
scene. Similar cases will be prosecuted with similar charges in the
future.

Unfortunately Nassau County is not immune from wide
variations in sentencing. There have been cases where the district
attorney recommended a sentence of seven to 21 years incarceration upon
a plea of guilty and the judge sentenced the defendant to three to nine
years instead. All defendants have the right to plead guilty to the
charges against them and petition the judge for a different sentence
than the one the prosecution recommends.  This is not a plea bargain. A
plea bargain requires the district attorney’s office to reduce the
charges in exchange for a particular sentence. Some sentences are
driven by the strength or weakness of the evidence in a case. There is
a wide range of sentencing options available to the court under the
statutes dealing with vehicular crimes. I am unfamiliar with the
detailed facts of the cases you mentioned from Manhattan so I am not in
a position to say why one sentence was given over another. I only know
that a victim’s family must be made aware of the pitfalls in the
prosecution’s case and be allowed to express their sentiments about a
given sentence and the impact they have suffered as a result of their
loss.

BA: Again, in your experience, how much interplay is there
between police and prosecutors when it comes to investigating
pedestrian fatalities? If police know the district attorney’s office is
committed to making and pursuing cases when possible, regardless of how
difficult it may be to do so, does that ultimately affect their
investigative process?

MM: Vehicular crimes prosecutors see
themselves as part of a law enforcement team. New York City has
specialized detectives that work in the Accident Investigation Squads
(AIS) of the Highway Division. Nassau County has homicide detectives
assigned to the Vehicular Crimes and Reconstruction Section (VCARS). I
have had the privilege of working with them both — 19 years in
Brooklyn primarily under District Attorney Charles Hynes and now three
years in Nassau. Both squads are trained in collision investigation and
reconstruction. These cases are unlike any of the intentional homicides
I prosecuted. They require a unique blend of old-fashioned detective
work and scientific crime scene investigation. They are labor
intensive. I am a firm believer that crash scenes must be treated as
crime scenes until it is established through witnesses and evidence
that a crime can not be charged. I also believe it is essential to have
early involvement of a trained prosecutor in a criminal crash.

I am a firm believer that crash scenes must be treated as crime scenes until it is established through witnesses and evidence that a crime can not be charged.

In
Nassau the detectives contact me directly, around the clock. Decisions
about warrants, scene preservation, charges, etc. are discussed. An
assistant district attorney responds to the crash scene most of the
time. And cases that require additional investigation are coordinated
in the vehicular crimes bureau to obtain subpoenaed materials, warrants
for "black box" downloads, hospital blood, etc. The investigation is
centralized in this bureau. Each of the five district attorneys’
offices in New York City have slightly varying protocols but each has a
contact person on-call to respond to AIS inquiries and cases. I know
that in Brooklyn, District Attorney Hynes had a system that required
all fatal collision investigations conducted by AIS in the borough to
be reviewed with the person in charge of vehicular crimes before the
investigation would be marked as "closed." Sometimes this review
resulted in additional investigation being conducted. That
investigation most often confirmed the crash could not be charged as a
crime but occasionally the joint investigation by AIS and the district
attorney’s office allowed criminal charges to be filed. I have
confirmed with my successors in Brooklyn that District Attorney Hynes
has maintained this policy of review.

I suppose the answer is
that the investigation of a crash should reveal facts from which a
charging decision can be made. I believe that a coordinated team
approach between police and prosecutors on these cases facilitates and
ultimately strengthens the case — regardless of how difficult the case
may be to prosecute.  

BA: What efforts, if any, are underway
to toughen penalties in New York State for drivers who kill — both in
cases where drugs or alcohol are present and when they are not?

MM: District
Attorney Rice, in conjunction with NYS Senator Charles Fuschillo and
Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, proposed aggravated vehicular homicide
and assault statutes. They were passed by the legislature after the
family of Katie Flynn went to Albany to implore them to take these most
egregious DWI crimes more seriously. Aggravated vehicular homicide is
a class B felony and represents the first time in New York State that a
vehicular homicide must receive mandatory upstate incarceration as part
of the sentence.

Things are changing, but much too slowly. When
I started 23 years ago, people did not go to jail for these crimes. Now
it is much more likely that a defendant will be sentenced to jail —
but generally the sentences are still disproportionately low compared
to the harm caused. There is still not enough awareness about driving
crimes that do not involve alcohol and drugs among the general public,
some parts of law enforcement and the judiciary.

I can attest
from my own participation that constant efforts are underway to
strengthen the laws involving vehicular crimes. The Vehicular Crimes
subcommittee of the NYS District Attorney’s Association and the NYS
Impaired Driving Task Force are working to toughen penalties and
increase coordination among the various state agencies which play a
role vehicular crimes enforcement. District Attorney Rice speaks
regularly with legislators from Long Island about closing the loopholes
and making the punishments fit the crimes. Criminally negligent
homicide should at least be increased from an E felony to a D felony,
like its leaving the scene of an incident counterpart. There should be
a felony assault charge when criminal negligence results in serious
physical injury. All homicides and assaults involving motor vehicles
should be designated "violent felony offenses" since a "dangerous
instrument" (defined by the Penal Law to include a motor vehicle) was
used to commit the crime. This would provide enhanced penalties. And
the technicalities involving the collection of blood evidence in the
Vehicle and Traffic law should finally be eliminated. No family should
ever have to be told again that a case against a drunk or drugged
driver could not be prosecuted because the blood evidence was thrown
out due to this hyper-technical statute.

I will end as I
started. It is an uphill battle. But there are dedicated members of law
enforcement, prosecution and the legislature who understand the urgency
of fixing this area of the law. It is simply difficult to be patient
while so much harm continues to be done.

  • Jessica Roberts

    What an inspiring interview. I am so glad to see concrete examples of the steps that are being taken to treat these crimes seriously. I hope other parts of the country can learn from the progress that is being made.

  • I almost got hit by a cab today. I was crossing at West 96th and Broadway, with the light, with several people in front and behind me, and I looked for moving cars before I stepped into the street. Despite all that, a cab shot through the intersection and stopped inches from me. What would be the chances of that driver getting prosecuted if his foot had hit the brake half a second later?

  • Omri

    The recession is pushing down advertising rates. Perhaps a passing around of the hat around Streetsblog will get a British 20’s Plenty commercial aired around the city?

  • Boris

    It’s ironic that drunk drivers are held responsible for their actions while sober drivers aren’t.

  • Why is that ironic?

  • Boris

    Josh,

    Just think of phrases like “under the influence.” Like the insanity plea, being drunk should seem to imply you are no longer responsible for your actions due to some abnormal force acting on your brain. Yet you get into more trouble driving drunk than sober, when the consequences of your actions are essentially the same. Essentially you are only punished for drinking, not for driving irresponsibly.

  • Eileen

    I think, in some sense, many drivers are “under the influence” — the influence of the power they have to wield their vehicle as a weapon. I don’t think anyone is immune to it — good drivers keep those feelings under control; drunk drivers willingly give up their control (except Cary Grant in North by Northwest) and so seem worse — but are they really any worse than a sober aggressive driver who won’t keep control?

  • Boris, I don’t think I agree with you but I suppose I see what you’re getting at.

  • Joe

    Boris makes a fine point. Drunk driving is a separate matter and a crime in itself, of course, but it is absurd that a “simply irresponsible” driver, who may very well be speeding through a red light with willful and sober disregard for human life, would be treated any less harshly than a drunk driver who did the same thing. In some sense, which Boris suggests perhaps, the sober and reckless driver is more reprehensible.

  • Tony

    This is a key quote in what is a great interview: “There is still not enough awareness about driving crimes that do not involve alcohol and drugs among the general public, some parts of law enforcement and the judiciary.”

    In fact, this is probably the most important point. So how do we change this? In effect, the ideal we’re talking about is the entire car-critical consciousness of a website like this *taking hold at the level of the culture generally*.

    People like Larry King, Sen. Schumer, Derek Jeter, Madonna, Paul Krugman, Bill Gates, etc., etc., will have to stand up publicly, on a huge stage, and say, cars are like guns, alcohol, smoking: their dangerous effects need to be managed constantly. And we’re far away from that happening.

  • Maureen McCormick

    MADD is primarily responsible for the raising of consciousness as it relates to drunk driving. As a grass roots organization they were able to get Americans to think about driving drunk and its consequences. Culture and consciousness has not yet caught up to the sober, reckless driver. Since 1998 District Attorney Charles Hynes in Brooklyn has been trying to change the culture and educate our newest drivers through a high school program called “Choices and Consequnces”. Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice has brought this program to Nassau County and it has been presented to over 20,000 students. The other NYC DA’s offices are also actively looking at programs to bring into the schools. The culture must be changed.

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