The lawsuit filed by the family of Mathieu Lefevre against NYPD could change police procedure in the aftermath of fatal crashes, making it easier for grieving relatives to access crucial information.
Lefevre was hit by the driver of a crane truck making a right turn at the intersection of Morgan Avenue and Meserole Street, in East Williamsburg, last October. The driver was identified as Leonardo Degianni only after police found the truck parked a short distance away. Degianni was ticketed for failing to signal a right turn and failure to exercise due care, but was not charged for leaving the scene. NYPD closed the case in early January, concluding that the crash was caused by “bicyclist error.”
Though the Lefevres had by then filed suit, following months of NYPD stonewalling, the department did not notify them of the results of the investigation for weeks. A court pleading filed earlier this month by family attorney Steve Vaccaro argues that, in violation of freedom of information laws, NYPD deliberately delayed producing documents that would have provided insight into what happened the night Lefevre was killed. In the most recent filing, Vaccaro says NYPD still hasn’t turned over all records related to the crash.
Given the parameters of the suit, a victory for the Lefevres could have broad implications. The most favorable would mean that in order to deny families’ freedom of information requests, NYPD would in the future be required to show that the disclosure of records would result in “actual interference” with a crash investigation. As it stands, NYPD categorically withholds such documents from victims’ family members, even in cases where the department has already announced a determination of “no criminality.”
Another potential outcome could be that the court forces NYPD to standardize its freedom of information protocol — to either release no information concerning ongoing investigations, or to provide access to information, consistent with the law, to all who request it. Under that scenario, in a case where NYPD has behaved inconsistently, a court could conclude that claims of interference with an investigation are incongruous with voluntary statements from the department — a finding of “no criminality,” for example.
The Lefevre suit was bolstered last week with the filing of an amicus brief from Transportation Alternatives and City Council Member Brad Lander. The brief, available in its entirety after the jump, explains that TA filed six crash-related freedom of information requests last August, and says NYPD has not released any documents because the department has not decided whether it will honor the requests. “NYPD appears to simply churn out boilerplate letters purporting to defer indefinitely its obligation to respond to FOIL requests — letters identical to those received by the Lefevres — until it is forced to produce records by litigation,” reads the brief.
The brief also informs the court that the City Council is scrutinizing NYPD crash investigation policy, and stresses freedom of information law compliance as a fundamental facet of open government.
“NYPD cannot have it both ways. It cannot publicly exonerate the drivers of criminal charges in the first week of an investigation, leak incorrect information blaming the victim, and then refuse to provide further reliable information to victims’ families for months on the grounds that disclosure would interfere with a ‘potential’ criminal investigation.”