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.

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