Few Answers From Vance About Traffic Crime Investigations

Cy Vance takes a question at today's New York Law School event. Photo: Brad Aaron

Safe streets advocates got a rare chance today to ask questions directly of a sitting city district attorney, even if they didn’t get the answers they were looking for.

Speaking to a packed room at New York Law School in Tribeca this morning, Cy Vance highlighted successes by Manhattan prosecutors in fighting local and international crime, from street gangs and domestic violence to terrorist money laundering. During the Q&A session, Vance fielded two questions related to vehicular crimes.

When running for office in 2009, Vance said that as district attorney he would consider vehicle black box data “critical” to crash investigations, and that he would issue subpoenas to acquire it. Street safety stalwart Charles Komanoff asked Vance if his office has issued, or plans to issue, subpoenas for data from the vehicles involved in the September 22 crash that killed pedestrian Rubin Baum, and injured his wife Denise Baum, on the Upper East Side.

Vance replied that he did not know whether subpoenas were issued in the Baum case, and said that procuring black box data is “complicated.” He cited four successful prosecutions for traffic fatalities — two in which the driver was intoxicated, one crash that resulted from a police chase, and one manslaughter case that did not involve alcohol or drugs — along with an increase in the number of hit-and-run cases brought under his watch. Vance said his office does the best it can with difficult cases.

“This is not an easy area,” Vance said. “Not every accident is a crime.” However, he said, his office has been and will continued to be focused on traffic crime. “There are far too many vehicular deaths in this city,” he said.

As a candidate, Vance spoke in no uncertain terms of his intent to challenge the so-called “rule of two.” From his campaign web site:

There is no reason why two traffic violations are necessary in order to support a conviction of criminally negligent homicide. I view the “Rule of Two” as the result of case law which should be modified to reflect the reality that one vehicular crime is fully capable of killing. Although in recent years this notion has been applied by the courts in a less strict manner — it is indisputable that it does not take two violations to kill someone. Many violations — speeding, running a red light, or failing to stop at a stop sign are more than dangerous enough to take a life.

Streetsblog asked Vance if his office has in fact prosecuted homicide cases that involved only one traffic violation, and whether those prosecutions resulted in convictions. If no such cases have been brought, we asked Vance when he would challenge the “rule of two.” Vance said he could not answer the question “precisely,” and that his office would follow up with us. This afternoon, we received the following statement:

In every case that comes into this office — be it an arrest for pick-pocketing or a homicide — prosecutors look at the totality of the circumstances surrounding the incident. As in all cases, we are bound by the parameters of the law — the evidence available dictates the charges available to us. There is no mandate that there be two or more factors when making a charging decision, particularly as it pertains to charging criminally negligent homicide. However, criminally negligent homicide isn’t the sole charge available to prosecutors in vehicular incidents resulting in death. For example, Dyson Williams was sentenced to 17 years to life in prison after being found guilty of Murder in the Second Degree, among other charges, for striking and killing one woman and injuring four others. Keston Brown was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being found guilty by a jury of Manslaughter in the Second Degree, among other charges, for driving a van onto a sidewalk, striking and killing one woman and seriously injuring another. David McKie and Jessica Altruz were also convicted of Manslaughter in the Second Degree and sentenced to state prison terms.

The cases listed in the statement, it should be noted, are the same ones cited by Vance this morning in response to Komanoff.

While Vance said prosecutors work with NYPD to investigate traffic crashes, in response to otherwise unrelated audience questions about police misconduct, he said it is not the district attorney’s job to “direct” other governmental departments. It’s an interesting aside, at least, given NYPD’s unapologetic neglect of vehicular crime investigations, and considering another Vance campaign pledge:

Death by vehicle requires stringent, serious, and methodical on-site investigations by the NYPD and prosecutors. Assistant District Attorneys must work cooperatively with the NYPD and both must be fully trained in forensic accident reconstruction. Preparing our police and prosecutors to handle such cases can vastly improve investigations of traffic deaths. My ultimate goal remains disciplined and sophisticated case-by-case assessments of vehicular crimes. Prosecutors must be trained to take the totality of the circumstances into consideration; this strategy will ensure that the people of New York City are fairly, properly, and justly served.

Following today’s session, Komanoff offered this assessment: “The answers attested to a passivity about traffic crimes. Yes to DUI, hit-and-run — but only the hit-and-run charge — the occasional striking a police officer and, perhaps, extraordinary cases such as Carmen Huertas, which resulted in ‘Leandra’s Law.’ No to everything else — speeding, lack of due care, aggressive passing, texting, red-light running, aggressive and illegal turning, and general recklessness — that constitute the large majority of intimidating, injuring and lethal driving.”

“He said to me, ‘If your premise is that we don’t take vehicular crimes seriously, you’re wrong.’ I’d say that after three years of little or no action, victims, survivors and advocates are tired of waiting for more than his sprinkling of counter-examples.”

Next week, Vance’s office will host a vehicular crimes training session featuring traffic law experts from the New York City metro region and beyond. We’ll have more in a later post.

  • NM

    I can’t find any additional information about the vehicular crimes training session.  Anyone know the details and if it’s open to the public?  Thanks!

  • Brad Aaron

    @69beb023988087b24bc67278893f75d3:disqus It’s a legal training session and is not open to the public or media.

  • NM

    Thanks, Brad, and sorry, one more:  is it a CLE open to attorneys?  Or more of an in-house training?

  • Brad Aaron

    @69beb023988087b24bc67278893f75d3:disqus I’m not sure if it’s a CLE session, but it’s for prosecutors only, as I understand it.

  • Guest

    While in a narrow sense Vance is correct when he says “it is not the district attorney’s job to ‘direct’ other governmental departments,” it misses the point.  The NYPD is systematically breaking the law when it does not investigate traffic injuries.  It clearly is his job to prosecute unlawful behavior.  He can’t deny that he could bring a case against the NYPD for breaking specific legal requirements, deliberately crafted to seek justice for vulnerable street users.

  • Morris Zapp

    Message received. Manhattanites who fear death and injury by motor vehicle are on their own.

  • Anonymous

    Dear God I hope the hippie guy in the picture wasn’t the main advocate of taking vehicular crimes seriously. Perpetuating the “cyclists-are-weird-dirty-granola-stoners” stereotype doesn’t exactly help the cause.

  • Pedal_Power_Pete

    That “hippie guy” JWCBKLN refers to is a well-educated, articulate, heart & soul committed advocate working with Time’s Up! who thankfully showed up that day; and he’s a personal friend of mine.

  • Anonymous

    Easy, man. I didn’t mean to disparage you or your friend – I’m pretty sure I’d be more likely to hang out with you guys than the other lawyers in the room. I was just trying to point out how it’s tough to engage a politician with words alone – you have to show that the issue matters to his core constituencies (or, more accurately, what he might think are his core constituencies). Unfortunately, a politician at a podium is going to judge people by their appearances, and your friend’s appearance (like my own) lends itself to a stereotype of livable streets advocates that gives politicians an excuse to marginalize an entire cause.

  • Joe R.

    @f3df9e0d933274e9f20d1550cc2005b0:disqus I’m sure he is all those things you mention, but the hard fact is our society is still biased by appearances. I’m not saying to show up at these things perfectly groomed in a suit and tie, but maybe wearing slightly less casual clothes and losing the beard would help. OK, I admit I’m not a big fan of facial hair, but it’s mostly for sanitary/practical reasons than appearance. Sad to say, a good number of people will knowingly or subconsciously ignore the message if they don’t like the appearance of the messenger. I’m not saying this is right, but it’s just the way things are at present. Hopefully in my lifetime we can move away from this.

  • bcxup

    JWCbrookln.  Pedal Power is right.  The man standing is one of the most well-spoken and ever-present advocates of safe streets (for cyclist, pedestrians, and drivers alike).  He also is a fantastic public speaker and law-knowledgable cyclist, the kind we need to help your, or, cyclings cause (i.e. questioning public officials with stats on uninvestigated vehicular homocides of cyclists).  If everyone needs to be in suits our uphill climb is higher than you think. 

  • Ben Kintisch

    What’s disappointing here is that the DA really has the authority to bring charges as crimes are committed or not. We see time and again that those who kill with cars are usually let off scott free. This should not stand.

  • KillMoto

    Two thoughts: 
    1) It’s far too hard to get vehicle black box data.  Google it – retrieval systems differ by car make an cost thousands – not hundreds of dollars.  In contrast, I bought an ODBII reader (onboard diagnostics for emissions) on a lark, because it was so cheap.  The feds need to step in here and demand an open specification for black box readers.  I would suggest an open API over WiFi, so any bystander at a wreck scene could collect facts from telemetry…
    2) Public streets == public data.  Vehicular crash data should not require a subpoena, it should be broadcast over open airwaves and protocols, for all to capture, record, and analyze.  Want to travel privately?  Take a bus, bike, or walk. 
    3) Why can’t DOT close off streets where vehicular crimes occur?  If someone is killed on the roads, 100′ in all directions should be sequestered until public and private investigators have the chance to make deliberate forensic analysis.  Say, 48 hours, minimum.  The mayor can impose this, and place DOT as the lead agency, since NYPD is both unwilling and incompetent. 

  • KillMoto

    Heheeee I said “two thoughts” then left three…

  • Anonymous

    @jwcbklyn:disqus  Your “hippie guy” comment isn’t just inane, it suggests intellectual
    laziness. Brad explicitly built his post around two questions in the
    Q&A — one by himself and the other by me. The photo wouldn’t have
    been of himself, and a moment’s Googling would have told you it wasn’t
    of me either — I’m nearly four decades older than the man in the photo.
    Thus, your concern that the man in the photo was “the main advocate
    of taking vehicular crimes seriously” at this morning’s forum was unfounded.

    Ironically,
    photo-man — Keegan of Time’s Up — is probably as dedicated and
    effective as any livable streets advocate we have. (I mean that as high
    praise, ’cause we have some amazing advo’s here; I’ve been privileged to
    work alongside Keegan over the past year on a number of fronts, and he
    is an amazing change-agent on many levels.) FYI, his question today
    focused on DA Vance’s complicity in NYPD repression of political
    dissent, though he linked it to vehicular crime by suggesting that
    police resources spent busting protests, and DA resources spent
    reviewing and tossing out those arrests, could and should be redirected
    to real crime that actually injures people.

    PS: For the record, I was resplendent in suit and tie at the Vance event. I must have frozen Brad’s camera.

  • It seems to me that the DA’s inaction relates pretty directly to the increased number of people dying on New York’s streets. I’ve just moved to New York and something similar is happening there. I’ve just blogged about the linked phenomena here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/10/do-as-you-like-motorists-and-dont-blame.html

  • Dewingbetter

    Thanks for strong queries and arguments. Also speed limit shoud be reduced – not only in this high density city. Tour bus tipped over today on nerby highway injuring 20 plus, 8 ‘critically.” We never hear how the cirtically injured fare in their slow or non-recovery and also the great fiscal cost of these collisions often caused by traffic crimes. Thanks for calling by rightful name. Also use traffic tragedies.  Government first duty is to protect the citizenry. 

  • Anonymous

    I know the “Hippie guy”, too. He is a smart guy, who is friendly,easy to get along with, and a strong advocate. 

  • Anonymous

    So, if the DA says he takes vehicular crimes seriously, but also says that it isn’t his job to tell the NYPD what to do, says “death by vehicle requires stringent, serious, and methodical on-site investigations by the NYPD”…

    …and meanwhile, the NYPD is repeatedly refusing to take the names of witnesses, refusing to properly investigate car crashes, refusing to arrest perpetrators, and even COMMITTING vehicle code violations THEMSELVES…

    …I think this points us squarely back at the NYPD at the bad-attitude department.  Is the DA ready to prosecute the NYPD?  That would be the next question.

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