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 Acevedo’s license should have been suspended in February when he went to court on a drunk driving charge — he was reportedly arrested after chasing a livery cab. But the judge, who normally doesn’t preside over such proceedings, misinterpreted the law. He also refused the prosecutor’s request to set bail.
Justice Michael Gary said that if he was wrong to let Acevedo retain his license, the judge at Acevedo’s next hearing, set for April 10, could correct him. Two weeks later, the Glaubers were dead.
Losing one’s drivers license is no easy task in New York State. As we’ve reported, as long as a motorist stays sober and pay his fines, he can expect to retain his driving privileges with little interruption, even if he causes a fatality.
Gary acknowledged his mistake. But the fact that he was unwilling to temporarily revoke the license of someone accused of a drunken car chase speaks to a system that holds the ability to drive as sacrosanct. If not for Acevedo’s criminal record, even if his license had been suspended at the time of the crash that killed the Glaubers, it’s doubtful the charges against him would be as severe.
Acevedo’s attorney claims prosecutors don’t have the evidence to convict her client of manslaughter. It’s her job to say that, but given the state of traffic justice in New York, she may be right.
Every case is different, of course, but recent decisions by the state’s highest court have in effect put a straightjacket on prosecutors who pursue serious charges against motorists who injure and kill. In 2004, Michael Edward Prindle led police on a high-speed chase through Rochester after he and another man were caught trying to steal two snow plows, according to court documents [PDF]. Prindle subsequently rammed another vehicle, killing a passenger. Prindle was convicted of murder, but in 2011 the Court of Appeals overturned the verdict.
Nassau County prosecutor Maureen McCormick cited another precedent-setting decision in a 2009 Streetsblog interview:
As recently as May 2008, New York’s highest court held that a 17-year-old driver who violated his junior license by driving with four unrelated passengers, without seatbelts, and who also was speeding at 70-72 mph through a curve with a posted caution speed of 40 mph, and who lost control sending the car over an embankment and killing three of his passengers, could not be held criminally liable (People v. Cabrera, 10 NY3d 370 ). This decision alone has resulted in numerous defense motions to have cases dismissed claiming that “speed alone” or any traffic infraction “alone” is not sufficient to sustain criminal negligence. Our position is that this is nonsense.
Even seemingly iron-clad DWI fatality cases are no slam dunk. Last summer, a lower court judge in Long Island acquitted a drunk driver of manslaughter on the grounds that the pedestrian he killed was also intoxicated and was attempting to cross against the light. The victim, said Judge Jerald Carter, “did not obey the traffic laws of the state of New York.”
While some prosecutors have criticized the courts for undermining their efforts, the state’s district attorneys have yet to make a concerted, high-profile public campaign to get Albany to change state vehicular laws.
On top of stricter traffic enforcement and more thorough crash investigations, these laws need to be reformed to keep dangerous drivers off the streets. As long as the courts can continue to treat driving as a right, not a privilege, the next mass road death, though entirely preventable, is guaranteed.