Husband Sues NYPD for Botched Investigation Into Death of Clara Heyworth

Jacob Stevens with attorney Steve Vaccaro (speaking), and TA's Paul Steely White (left). Behind Stevens, to his right: Council Member Tish James. Photo: Brad Aaron

The husband of Clara Heyworth, the woman killed by a suspected drunk driver in Fort Greene last summer, filed a lawsuit today against NYPD and called on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to take responsibility for the department’s failure to investigate traffic crashes.

“I’m here because we have a right to know what happens in our city,” said Jacob Stevens, who was joined by Transportation Alternatives and advocates for traffic safety on the steps of City Hall.

In the early morning hours of July 10, 2011, Heyworth was crossing Vanderbilt Avenue to meet Stevens when she was struck by driver Anthony Webb. She died from head injuries the following day. She was 28.

Webb, 43, was charged with driving while intoxicated, operation of a motor vehicle by an unlicensed driver, reckless driving, reckless endangerment, and assault, among other violations. But according to the lawsuit, all criminal charges were dropped, as were plans by prosecutors to seek an indictment for vehicular manslaughter.

Clara Heyworth. Photo via ##http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/11/nyregion/police-unit-draws-scrutiny-for-its-handling-of-crashes-involving-pedestrians.html?smid=tw-nytmetro&seid=auto##New York Times##

Though the machine used to administer a breath test to Webb was later found to be working properly, the 88th Precinct had not performed a required calibration for four years. In addition, Stevens said today, NYPD’s Accident Investigation Squad cancelled its investigation one hour after the crash, without coming to the scene. The lawsuit says AIS called off the investigation because Heyworth did not die at the scene, though the precinct officers who first responded summoned AIS because they thought she “may be likely” to die.

When officers arrived several days later, skid marks were gone, and video from a nearby camera that may have captured the crash had been wiped, Stevens said. Meanwhile, according to the lawsuit, Webb was released, with his car, the same day.

“That night, I lost the love of my life, the basis of all of my plans for the future,” said Stevens. Though he expected police to collect evidence, hold the driver in custody, test blood for intoxicants, impound the vehicle and look for witnesses, Stevens said, “The NYPD did none of those things. Not one.”

“I want to know why there was no real investigation and why no one has been held responsible for the lack of that investigation,” said Stevens. “If someone dies, suddenly and violently, we have a right to know what happened. There needs to be a professional and timely investigation, as there is after a shooting. The NYPD made a conscious decision not to investigate the scene of Clara’s death. And we know that this wasn’t an isolated incident — it fits a pattern.”

The lawsuit alleges that NYPD failed to investigate Heyworth’s death and caused evidence to be destroyed, violating New York traffic law and Stevens’ right to access the courts.

According to the suit, due to the delay between the time of the crash and the commencement of the NYPD investigation, no witnesses could be located; no pictures were taken of the crash scene; video evidence was erased; information from the vehicle’s data recorder, which would have indicated speed, was overwritten; driver blood evidence was lost; and skid marks were destroyed. The position of the victim was never recorded, making it impossible to reconstruct the crash. Police did not document vehicle damage for weeks, after the car had been taken to a repair shop.

NYPD’s investigation into the death of cyclist Stefanos Tsigrimanis was also compromised by the “likely to die” rule. AIS did not begin its investigation until nine days after Tsigrimanis was fatally struck by a motorist on Brooklyn’s Grand Avenue, and did not revisit the scene until 46 days after the crash. After interviewing the driver and another motorist, both of whom said they did not see Tsigrimanis until the moment of impact, AIS investigators blamed Tsigrimanis for the collision.

“These kinds of tragedies are shattering peoples’ lives,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. Noting that Mayor Bloomberg donates millions toward traffic safety efforts worldwide, White reiterated TA’s request that the mayor appoint a multi-agency task force to assess the state of city traffic enforcement and crash investigations. White praised Stevens for summoning the courage to come forward and push for reform.

Stevens’ attorney Steve Vaccaro said the policy of investigating crashes only when a victim is killed or believed likely to die is a result of NYPD “rationing” its investigators, and that the department makes its own distinctions between “accidents” and crimes, rather than adhering to the law.

“The difference between an accident and a felony is whether NYPD investigates,” Vaccaro said. “When they don’t, it’s an ‘accident.'”

  • Matt

    glad to see it

  • It’s about time. 

  • Bolwerk

    Maybe the NYPD will offer wergeld.  What is a white female worth nowadays? Surely very much, since you can allow them outdoors and don’t have to stop and frisk them.

  • Alberto

    Just business as usual for NYC’s finest, as far as traffic is concerned…

  • Guest 2

    King Bloomburger will take responsibility?  lol

  • JK

    PD’s current, somewhat arbitrary, process can’t possibly be rational way to allocate the scarce time of the AID investigators. How much time does PD waste trying to assess whether a victim is likely to die, and whether or not a team should secure the crash site and collect evidence? AID teams must spend lots of time in limbo as new, and conflicting, information comes from EMS or the hospital. What is the role of the DA’s in all of this? Do they have zero influence over PD? What if all five get together and call for procedural changes?

  • Larry Littlefield

    I share the outrage at what happened, but the lawsuit is unlikely to succeed.  Basically, the government is not legally obligated to provide any public services at all.  A precedent that will become more and more important as the share of tax revenues going to debts and pensions continues to rise.

  • My apartment was burglarized last month.   2 NYPD officers came by later that day, listened to the recounting of events, and took a report.  Then their 2 supervisors came by an hour later to check everything out.  The next morning forensics investigators came, spent an hour dusting for fingerprints and swabbing for DNA, taking photos of the scene, and filling out reports.  Then that afternoon, 2 investigators came by to suss out the scene, talk to neighbors, check for cameras, take notes, etc. I was impressed with the complexity of their conduct.  But when I read stories like this, my stomach turns to think that that much police effort went into the theft of my shitty $300 laptop and an iPod shuffle, yet a woman’s life has been completely disrespected and her family left devastated by what seems to be a cover-up or complete and total negligence.  Yes, there is a pattern.  I nod my head out of respect for Mathieu Lefevre and his family whenever I pass his ghost bike.  His family is a victim of NYPD negligence as well.  May Clara’s case bring further justice and awareness to this mess and shine lightness on the future.

  • Curbcut Your Enthusiasm

    Re: NYPD resources: I own a house in Brooklyn. The previous owner, back in the 1980s, tore off the front stoop and smashed a garage through the front of the house. She then spent the next 15 years working her way onto her local Community Board to get a legal curb-cut. She succeeded.

    Why do I mention this? Because any time someone parks their car in front of our garage I can call the local police precinct and, usually within minutes, they send over an officer to put a summons on the windshield of the offending automobile, which I can then have towed away at the expense of the offender, if I so desire.

    Whenever I hear NYPD complaining about their lack of resources to deal with ped and bike injuries, I think about the fact that plenty of police manpower always seems to be available to me, the car- and home-owning Brooklynite with the legal curb-cut.

    NYPD has nearly 40,000 officers. They are the size of a small army. Allocating resources is a choice that Commissioner Ray Kelly and his chiefs make on their own. Ray Kelly chooses not to allocate resources to the prevention of motor vehicle injuries and fatalities. It’s just that simple.

  • KeNYC2030

    Maybe the NYPD could reassign some of the officers who have been bird-dogging Critical Mass rides for the last eight years to the AIS.  The department seemed to have no trouble summoning the resources for a massive presence (including helicopters) for several years after July 2004, and has been deploying personnel, sometimes outnumbering riders, to throttle this dire threat to public safety ever since.

  • Guest

    @9f061d494975c3d4d4385230c7b0287b:disqus excellent points, and you hit it square on the head about being the choice that Ray Kelly is making.
    I think it is important to emphasize, though, that this choice is illegal.  He is required by law to investigate these accidents.  If he is dedicating resources to ANY activity that is not mandated, he is brazenly breaking the law.

    Of course, he already stomped on the Constitution when he personally supervised the media blackout when they cleared Zuccotti Park, and continues to do so with his continued direction of illegal stops with his illegal-quota-driven stop-and-frisk regime.

    It’s about time somebody relieves him of command, and perhaps prosecutes him for what increasingly amounts to illegal activities.

  • KeNYC2030

    Has Ray Kelly issued a directive instructing all precincts to properly calibrate their breath-testing equipment?  If not, why not take this simple, no-cost step to improve investigations?  And where were our electeds at this press conference?   

  • FDDDDD

    She was cute. 

  • Nathanael

    “….excellent points, and you hit it square on the head about being the choice that Ray Kelly is making.
    I
    think it is important to emphasize, though, that this choice is
    illegal.  He is required by law to investigate these accidents.  If he
    is dedicating resources to ANY activity that is not mandated, he is
    brazenly breaking the law.

    Of course, he already stomped on the Constitution when he personally
    supervised the media blackout when they cleared Zuccotti Park, and
    continues to do so with his continued direction of illegal stops with
    his illegal-quota-driven stop-and-frisk regime.

    It’s about time somebody relieves him of command, and perhaps
    prosecutes him for what increasingly amounts to illegal activities.”

    Indeed.  So what to do?  I believe the key thing to do is for someone to get elected to one of these positions:
    1 – district attorney for any of the 5 boroughs
    2 – state attorney general
    A person in any of those positions could bring a prosecution against Ray Kelly, and could ask a judge to order Kelly confined to jail and relieved of duties during the prosecution.

    Actually, any grand jury in the 5 boroughs could do the same.  But I think it would be easier for a “good guy” to win a DA position than to get a majority of “good guys” randomly selected for a grand jury!

  • Nathanael

    Larry Littlefield wrote: “I share the outrage at what happened, but the lawsuit is unlikely to
    succeed.  Basically, the government is not legally obligated to provide
    any public services at all.   ”

    You are wrong.  The *state legislature* is not obligated to provide much of any public services (see below for the exceptions).  However, the *City Police* are required to provide a long list of services, under state law, passed by the legislature.  So the suit will, in fact, win.

    * The exception: every state is required to provide a “Republican Form of Government” according to the US Constitution, which means the state legislatures *have* to provide elections.  Similarly, there are a few mandatory services Congress must provide, such as the census.

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