Myth: DWI Killers Should Expect Severe Penalties in New York State

When a Long Island judge last month acquitted a drunk driver of manslaughter on the grounds that the pedestrian he struck was also intoxicated, the decision sparked shock and outrage. But the case of Robert Core was only the latest in which an area motorist all but escaped punishment for killing while under the influence.

A Long Island judge ruled that Eddie Cotto should not have put himself in the path of the drunk driver who killed him. Photo via New York Post

Police said Core drove 150 feet with Eddie Cotto on the hood of the car after striking him on the Hempstead Turnpike on July 14, 2011. Core, a public security officer for the town of Hempstead, was on the job and driving a marked vehicle. Authorities said Core had a blood alcohol content of .17, more than double the legal limit for driving. He was charged with second degree manslaughter and DWI, and faced up to 15 years in prison.

“It’s clear to the court that this is a tragedy that should not have happened,” said Judge Jerald Carter, who decided Core’s case on July 30, as quoted by the Post. “There was no doubt that Mr. Core was operating that motor vehicle while intoxicated.”

However, noting that Cotto had a blood alcohol reading of .26 percent, and that he attempted to cross against the light, Carter dismissed the manslaughter charge. He convicted Core of DWI and aggravated DWI, giving him a maximum sentence of one year. “Cotto did not obey the traffic laws of the state of New York,” said Carter.

In a story headlined “DWI-Slay Vic Blamed,” Cotto’s anguished fiancée, Diane Ware, told the Post: “You kill a man, you should definitely have to do some time. I think it’s disgusting. It’s absolutely wrong.”

“Clearly we disagree with the judge’s verdict,” says Maureen McCormick, chief vehicular crimes prosecutor for Nassau County. “There is a rebuttable presumption that the intoxication caused the defendant to operate the car in a manner that caused Mr. Cotto’s death. It would seem from the verdict and statements made by the judge that the judge believed that Mr. Cotto crossing the street while intoxicated and against the light rebutted that presumption.”

In New York State, to sustain a charge of vehicular homicide, prosecutors must be able to prove that impairment caused a motorist to operate a vehicle in a manner that caused death. Though Core was determined to have been legally drunk, and evidence presented at trial indicated that he was speeding and did not brake before or after striking Cotto, Carter remarked in his verdict that Core “looked” unaffected by alcohol in surveillance videos taken prior to the crash.

The Core case is reminiscent of recent New York City fatalities that resulted in little jail time for motorists, or outright dismissal of manslaughter charges, despite unchallenged evidence of intoxication. George Anderson was barreling through Tribeca at 60 mph when he struck Florence Cioffi in 2008. He fled the scene and later refused a Breathalyzer test. Charged with vehicular manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and leaving the scene, Anderson was able to plead to DWI and leaving the scene only, and was sentenced to 16 days in jail and 250 hours of community service. According to reports, the attorney for Cioffi’s family suspected that prosecutors backed down because Cioffi was intoxicated when Anderson ran her down.

When off-duty NYPD officer Andrew Kelly was accused of vehicular manslaughter and DWI in the 2009 killing of Brooklyn pedestrian Vionique Valnord, Kelly’s lawyer — abetted by the Post and the Daily News — put the victim on trial. “There was alcohol in her system and witnesses … said she was clearly, visibly intoxicated,” said attorney Arthur Aidala, who declared, “it was Valnord who was to blame for the accident.” Though Kelly, who faced up to seven years behind bars, admitted he was drunk and pleaded guilty to second degree vehicular manslaughter, he was sentenced to just 90 days in jail, five years probation and a one-year license suspension.

The victim does not have to be inebriated, or even of age, for a drunken killer motorist to get off easy. Prosecutors in Queens said Kent Lowrie was legally intoxicated when he hit and killed 6-year-old Zhaneya Butcher last summer as the little girl ran toward an ice cream truck in Jamaica. Lowrie pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received five years probation, a $1,000 fine, and a six-month license revocation. According to reports, prosecutors feared Lowrie was not drunk enough to secure a manslaughter conviction in court.

While lower court decisions, such as the Core verdict, are not generally considered precedent-setting, McCormick says she has seen similar outcomes before.

“I think it falls into the category of the difficulties faced in vehicular crimes’ prosecutions,” McCormick says. “Judges and juries frequently ‘compare’ the blameworthiness of the defendant to the victim.”

  • Bolwerk

    There isn’t any reason people should be punished more when they kill someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol than when they kill someone sober. Over-emphasizing the former simply makes it easy for prohibitionist prigs to rationalize and downplay the latter.

  • Joe R.

    The big problem here isn’t so much the lack of jail time but rather the fact that most of these killers will eventually be allowed to drive again. If you kill or seriously injure someone when driving, and it’s proven to be your fault, then sober or not you should never be allowed behind the wheel of a car for as long as you live. Driving isn’t an inalienable right. It’s a privilege which should be revoked forever if you’re so negligent that you take or seriously destroy a life.

  • Anonymous

    Bolwerk: Of course there is a reason. If you are operating a vehicle in an illegal and unsafe manner and accidentally kill someone, it is worse than if you are legally and (relatively) safely operating the vehicle and kill someone. Why wouldnt it be?

    Im all for the prohibition on drinking and driving. Drink closer to home, walk, transit, or taxi.

  • Glenn

    Joe hits the nail on the head. Driving has become, in the mind of many people who have organized their lives around mobility solely through cars, a right. As much as I may hate easy gun ownership, there’s at least some constitutional rationale for that being a right. There’s no law or right to driving a car enshrined anywhere in our legal framework. The fault of lax enforcement rest heavily on local police and courts that routine treat avoidable crashes like accidents.

  • ctp

    It’s interesting that “prosecutors must be
    able to prove that impairment caused a motorist to operate a vehicle in a
    manner that caused death” yet they don’t seem to need to prove the same of the pedestrian?

  • Miles Bader

    @3a9cb377ae68ba7b489d30e5eb859747:disqus There’s absolutely a reason to vilify drunk (&c) drivers: prevention.

    Drunk driving is a huge problem, it seriously increases the chance of a collision, and yet despite the widespread condemnation in the media many many people do it quite blithely, using endless excuses and justifications.

    The goal should be to make people scared utterly shitless of driving drunk.  The penalties should be draconian.  At the least, they should never drive again.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Why the Brooklyn Crash That Killed a Family of Three Will Happen Again

|
Julio Acevedo, accused of the high-speed hit-and-run crash that killed Nachman and Raizel Glauber and their unborn child, was convicted in the court of opinion well before he was charged with manslaughter. But the failure of New York’s traffic justice system to keep Acevedo off the roads also allowed this tragedy to happen. The Daily News has reported that […]

Bill Bratton Is in Denial About NYPD’s Deadly Drunk Driving Problem

|
In the aftermath of another civilian death at the hands of an allegedly intoxicated off-duty officer, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton says drunk driving cops are not a problem at NYPD. Nicholas Batka, 28, drove onto the sidewalk at Bedford Avenue and North Eighth Street in Williamsburg at around 3:10 a.m. Saturday, striking Andrew Esquivel and three friends. Esquivel, a […]

Maureen McCormick: How Nassau Got Serious About Traffic Crime

|
In part our interview with veteran vehicular crimes prosecutor Maureen McCormick, the former Brooklyn ADA, now with Nassau County, offers 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.