With perpetrators having little to fear from police and prosecutors, a new City Council bill aims to deter drivers from fleeing crash scenes by attaching civil penalties to hit-and-run.
Proposed by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez, Intro 371 would levy fines of $250 to $5,000 against drivers who leave the scene of a crash, with fines ranging from $500 to $5,000 in cases where a driver “knows or has cause to know” an injury has occurred. Fines at the higher end of the scale would be applied to drivers who inflict serious injuries and deaths.
At a transportation committee hearing today, Van Bramer and Rodriguez stressed that the proposed fines are not intended to place a value on lives, but to deter drivers from leaving crash victims to die. Van Bramer noted that hit-and-run drivers have killed three pedestrians in his district alone in the last 18 months.
Motorists have “a moral responsibility to stop and not flee, to see if those people who were just struck can be saved,” Van Bramer said.
Under New York State law, drivers who may be impaired by alcohol or drugs have an incentive to leave the scene, since the penalty for hit-and-run is less severe than causing death or injury while intoxicated. State legislators have repeatedly failed to fix the law. “We must act where Albany has not,” said Van Bramer.
Transportation Alternatives offered recommendations for bill amendments. TA’s Noah Budnick testified that higher fines would be a stronger deterrent, and said fines should be increased for drivers who hit pedestrians or cyclists, who account for the majority of hit-and-run victims. Repeat offenders and drunk and unlicensed drivers should also be subject to more severe penalties, Budnick said.
Rodriguez said the proposed fines may be increased.
Another issue, not discussed during the hearing, is the “knows or has cause to know” provision. Many New York City hit-and-run drivers are not charged criminally because prosecutors must prove the driver “knew or had reason to know” a collision occurred. This is a surprisingly high burden, and many times DAs don’t pursue cases if a driver claims he or she “didn’t see” the victim.
Streetsblog has asked Van Bramer’s office how the “knew or had reason to know” condition would be satisfied under the bill, and if strict liability-type language was considered instead. A new city law that makes it a misdemeanor for a driver to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way employs strict liability, a legal standard based on what a driver does, instead of a driver’s purported state of mind.
Susan Petito, NYPD assistant commissioner of intergovernmental affairs, said the department is in favor of Intro 371. Of 60 fatal hit-and-runs investigated in 2012, NYPD arrested just 15 drivers, according to Transportation Alternatives.
Another bill on the agenda today, Intro 81, would require taxi and livery cabs to be equipped with signs that list penalties for those who assault drivers. The bill comes after a recent spate of livery driver murders. Several people testified for more severe penalties, in line with those that apply to bus driver assaults. Council Member Daneek Miller said city district attorneys often issue misdemeanor, rather than felony, charges for attacks on livery drivers, or don’t prosecute at all.