The Manhattan DA’s office is filing charges of criminal mischief against a cyclist, Ray Bengen, because he allegedly caused property damage to a multi-ton SUV in the process of getting doored by the driver. Too ridiculous to be true? Sadly, no. Here’s how it happened.
Bengen, 63, was riding down the Ninth Avenue bike lane on May 21 when he encountered the Ford Excursion you see in this photo (curb weight: 7,190 lbs). A long-time city cyclist, Bengen had a green light and wasn’t quite sure what to make of the vehicle in front of him. The car wasn’t moving and its brake lights were off.
The bike lane on this stretch of Ninth Avenue is part of the city’s first on-street protected bike path. At the 20th Street intersection, where Bengen came across the car, there’s a left-turn bay for vehicles and an exclusive green phase for cyclists. The Excursion, as you can see below, was in the bike lane, not the left-turn bay.
Bengen rode slowly by on the left. Then he sensed the car start to move as he was passing. Alarmed, he slapped the side of the car with his palm in an effort to alert the driver as to his presence. A witness, who Bengen says has agreed to testify in court, snapped three pictures of what happened next. We’ll let Bengen describe it:
The driver then went berserk. Talk about road rage. He threw open his door forcing me and my bike to the ground giving me some awful bruising down my leg. As I was now on the ground yelling at him that he’s in a bike lane and was just about to run me over, he started to scream at me "Don’t even think about it, don’t even think about it." I’m still not sure what he meant by that. With me lying on the ground quite shaken, he suddenly stopped his assault and did something very unexpected. He moved away from me, picked up my bike where it was nearly underneath his truck. He then stood it up on its kickstand, and got back in the truck and drove away left into 20th street.
If the episode had ended then and there, one might assume that the driver, who remains unidentified, had counted to ten and wrestled his anger under control. But it looks like the guy may hold a grudge.
Last week, Bengen received a phone call from Detective Christopher Cipolli at the 10th Precinct. Officers from the precinct had arrived at the scene promptly following the altercation, Bengen says, and Cipolli had been very helpful during the investigation that followed. So it was with an apologetic tone that the detective informed Bengen that he had to come down to the precinct on Friday. The reason? Because the Manhattan DA had filed charges of criminal mischief against him. (The DA’s office is also pursuing assault charges against the SUV driver.)
"I had to go through the very humiliating process of being handcuffed and put into an interview room — locked and barred — for an hour or so," Bengen recalled. After a fingerprint check, Bengen was released. He has a date in Manhattan criminal court set for July 14. The driver will appear on the 13th.
The Manhattan DA’s office could not identify the prosecutor who filed the charge against Bengen. When we asked about the basis of the criminal mischief charge, a spokesperson said that when Bengen appears in court "there will be more details." The offense of criminal mischief entails causing property damage of $250 or greater, so presumably the prosecutor will contend that Bengen "recklessly" took aim at a 7,000-pound SUV. Criminal mischief is a Class A misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 12 months in prison.
We’ll be keeping tabs on this case as it moves to court. According to Bengen’s attorney, Mark Taylor, the accusations against his client shouldn’t hold up. "There’s no basis for the charges against Ray — it’s clear that he was acting to protect his own life," Taylor said. "It’s unfortunate that the DA is choosing to prosecute this case."