DA Vance Explains Decisions to File Charges, or Not, in Traffic Crime Cases

This report is filed by Streetsblog reader Steve Vaccaro.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance spoke last night at a town hall meeting in East Harlem, addressing a wide range of law enforcement issues including vehicular crime. His remarks provided encouragement for livable streets advocates, but he did point out some of the shortcomings in recently-enacted laws intended to protect pedestrians and cyclists.

Manhattan DA Cy Vance. Photo: Steve Vaccaro

In his prepared remarks, Vance emphasized that his office takes vehicular crime, and in particular driving while impaired, very seriously. He maintains a 40-person, specially-trained vehicular crimes unit within the DA’s office to prosecute crimes committed with vehicles.

As an example of the unit’s work, he described the recent manslaughter indictment secured against Jessica Altruz, who mowed down Margaret Fisher while honking at her in a race to squeak through a red light. Altruz left the scene but was later apprehended and quoted as saying, “It was my light. It was my light.”

Vance explained that his vehicular crimes unit independently gathered evidence not originally provided to it by police. While his office was commended (by me) for its prosecution of the case, Vance’s touting of this modest investigative step suggests the depth of neglect of vehicular crimes by his predecessor, and his description of how it came about hints at a less-than-thorough investigative job performed by the NYPD.

Vance was asked about his office’s use of recently-enacted “vulnerable user” laws, such as Elle’s Law and Hayley and Diego’s Law, and why such laws had not been applied in the fatal dooring incident that killed cyclist Marcus Ewing on East 120th Street last October. Vance explained the person who received a summons for blocking Ewing’s path with a vehicle door, sending Ewing into the path of a truck, did not have the vehicle’s keys in their possession, nor was the vehicle’s engine running at the time.  Because the laws by their terms (which are now codified as Vehicle & Traffic Law Section 1146) penalize only the “driver” of a vehicle, Vance concluded that these laws didn’t apply. Given this interpretation by the DA’s office, advocates will need to consider pushing for amendment of the law to replace the term “driver” with the phrase “operator or passenger.”

Vance also emphasized that his office would distinguish between “accidents” and “gross recklessness” of the kind evident in the Altruz case, and would “treat accidents as accidents.”  The heads of his vehicular crimes units later clarified that, except for repeat offenses, violations of Section 1146 are not criminal offenses but rather traffic infractions, and so the DA’s office rarely gets involved with them.

Traffic infractions are issued by police officers, and are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Motor Vehicles — not the most vigilant watchdogs for the rights of vulnerable street users. Nonetheless, one assistant DA was able to recall one instance where she believed the DMV had upheld a summons issued for violation of Section 1146 since it was amended by Elle’s Law and Hayley and Diego’s Law last year.

  • Wow, those laws only bust the “driver” that’s a glaring hole. I am all for charging the driver even if a passenger commits the crime, (ala cabbies and their fares when the fare doors you) but allow just the passenger to be punished too.

  • ddartley

    Thanks very much for the report, Steve! A great service.

    My analysis of laws/infractions may not be 100% spot on in the following, but:

    Wow, so “traffic infractions,” huh? When I read the versions of the bill that eventually became “Hayley and Diego’s Law,” I had a sick feeling that it was going to let down its namesakes. Now I see it falls short of even that expectation.

    What a demerit that (unless I’m mistaken) we didn’t even have an infraction called “careles driving” until Hayley and Diego’s Law. In Jersey where I grew up there have long been both “careless driving” and “reckless driving” infractions.

    What a shame that to be charged with careless driving, you have to actually hurt or kill someone, and even then, unless it’s a repeat, it’s an INFRACTION?

    Let’s stop calling it “Hayley and Diego’s Law.” Let’s stop dishonoring them by using their names for a law that falls so far short of what’s needed and deserved.

    Finally, I regret not making it to the town hall, but as this occurs to me, I’m REALLY kicking myself–I still want to know why the hell Hayley and Diego’s killer hasn’t been charged with anything. Should have been there and asked that.

  • lance chesdique

    So, let me get this straight – the DA’s Office successfully prosecutes a case that did take significant additional investigation as few witnesses originally came forward, and you dismiss that? To the people who knew and loved the victim in this case we are thrilled at the work the DA’s Office did, and continues to do to bring justice.

    there will always be tragic cases that are not criminal cases.

  • Lance (#3) — In suggesting that the author of the post, Steve Vaccaro, “dismissed” D.A. Vance’s prosecution of the driver who killed Margaret Fisher, you appear to have ignored Steve’s clear statement that he commended Vance for indicting the driver.

  • IanM

    “Given this interpretation by the DA’s office, advocates will need to consider pushing for amendment of the law to replace the term “driver” with the phrase “operator or passenger.””

    Hm… I’m all for improving safety, and dooring is a severe problem – but the principle behind these laws is that operating a vehicle gives the driver extra responsibility for the safety of those around him/her, because of the size and power of a car – right? That principle doesn’t apply when there’s no actual driving of the car involved. Sure, car doors are dangerous objects in themselves (particularly since we put all our bike lanes right next to them), but it’s not at all the same thing as a moving 4000lb gas-powered vehicle.

    Charging passengers by the same principle we charge drivers doesn’t seem right at all, logically or morally. Couldn’t this just have easily been a pedestrian who stepped into Mr. Ewing’s path and knocked him off course? A shopping cart? A beer delivery? Would you then be advocating for charging the pedestrian?

    Laws definitely need to protect people from the destructive potential of moving cars. But other problems like dooring I would think need to be solved mostly with smarter infrastructure and awareness. Perhaps a special, smaller penalty for dooring wouldn’t be a bad idea. But overall, I actually agree with the DA’s logic that there’s an important distinction there.

  • Very frustrating to find there is a “dooring loophole” in this law. And Lance, I was at the event, and Vance was very sincerely thanked, not “dismissed,” for his work in prosecuting Altruz.

    The fundamental problem here is that the system is set up to treat negligent vehicular crimes that kill people in the exact same way as failing to feed the meter. A ticket from a cop, adjudicated by the DMV if challenged. The namesake laws attempt to change this by adding new penalties, but the enforcement mechanism remains the same: cops and the DMV.

    It’ll be interesting to see what the Commanding Officer of the 19th Precinct has to say about this with respect to the Jason King and Laurence Renard killings on Monday.

  • Jonathan Quimbly

    @IanM: How does the law tell the difference between a shopping cart shoved in front of cyclist intentionally, or accidentally?

    Whether you’re working or walking or standing alongside a busy street, where motor vehicles and pedestrians alike are moving along their legally define pathways – that you let a shopping cart, or beer keg, or whatever loose into the flow of traffic is at least careless, and very likely negligence.

    The law needs to recognize when people have a responsibility for the safety of others, and when they are disregarding that safety.

    So long as you are present in an area where lack of awareness of your surroundings puts people in mortal danger, there ought to be a penalty for that.

  • This DA should lose his job!!!!!   No back bone at all…..1st he loses the rape case involving the 2 cops, then the case involving the UPS truck running over & killing the famous attorney’s sister & now this????   What the hell…..is he going to at least deport this tramp back to where she came from?  Can he at least do this & lets hope the DA in France shows more guts this Vance when those rape charges are heard.   How embarassing for New York…


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