Unlicensed Drivers Keep Killing and Injuring New Yorkers — Time for Albany to Act

The default charge for killing someone while driving without a license is the same one NYPD and DAs apply when an unlicensed driver fails to signal a turn. This must change.

Unlicensed truck driver Mauricio Osorio-Palominos killed 8-year-old Noshat Nahian on Northern Boulevard in 2013. He was charged with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Image: WNBC via Daily News
Unlicensed truck driver Mauricio Osorio-Palominos killed 8-year-old Noshat Nahian on Northern Boulevard in 2013. He was charged with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Image: WNBC via Daily News

Unlicensed drivers critically injured two people walking in Queens and Brooklyn Tuesday. In both cases, according to the Daily News, NYPD and prosecutors charged the drivers with aggravated unlicensed operation, a low-level misdemeanor that’s often applied when an unlicensed driver kills someone — or turns without signaling.

Albany lawmakers have failed to pass legislation that would make it a felony to harm someone while driving without a valid license, but bills introduced this year have sponsors in the State Senate and Assembly.

Unlicensed drivers have killed eight people walking and biking in NYC in the last eight months, according to crash data tracked by Streetsblog. Since the 2014 launch of the Vision Zero program, motorists without valid licenses have killed at least 24 NYC pedestrians and cyclists. In many of those cases — unless a driver fled the scene, for example, or was found to be impaired by alcohol or drugs — third degree aggravated unlicensed operation was the top charge applied.

A charge of aggravated unlicensed operation stipulates that a motorist drove without a valid license when he knew or should have known he didn’t have one. Third degree aggravated unlicensed operation carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, though drivers usually plead guilty and get a fine with no jail time. (In some cases, unlicensed drivers who kill people aren’t charged with a crime at all.)

Prompted by a series of fatal crashes in Queens, State Senator Michael Gianaris has for several years running introduced legislation to make it a class E felony to cause serious injury or death while driving without a valid license, as long as the license was suspended or revoked for traffic offenses. The bill passed the Senate in 2016, but died in the Assembly.

Gianaris reintroduced the bill this session. It currently has seven co-sponsors, including Tony Avella, a member of the so-called Independent Democratic Conference, which, along with Republicans, controls the Senate. An Assembly version introduced by Queens rep Aravella Simotas has five co-sponsors.

A second Gianaris bill, which also has support in the Senate and Assembly, would require drivers with suspended or revoked licenses to surrender their license plates.

By backing these bills in the Assembly, Speaker Carl Heastie can help elevate penalties and deter people from driving without a license. Will he do it?

Editor’s note: After we published this post, the driver in Tuesday’s Brooklyn crash was also charged with “being under the influence of drugs,” according to the Daily News.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Who opposes, and why?

  • Vooch

    perhaps the organization that crashes their cars 4,000 times a years ?

  • walks bikes drives

    I don’t get it. If your license is suspended, for whatever reason, including traffic tickets or failure to pay fees, you are not supposed to drive. If you kill or injure a person when you are not supposed to be driving, no matter who is at fault, you should lose your license forever. If you kill or injure a person, and you have a valid license, and you are at fault, you should be procecuted with serious consequences. Do the same without a valid license, and you should get a much more serious, at least double, sentence. Why do we treat traffic deaths as a fact of life? It makes no logical sense.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    It still shocks me how often unlicensed drivers kill and how police, prosecutors and the media (except Streetsblog and Gothamist) treat the fact of driving unlicensed as not a big deal. Why did I bother paying to renew a license I barely use?