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Unlicensed Driver Pays the Price for Killing Laurence Renard: $500

4:33 PM EDT on July 13, 2011

The unlicensed dump truck driver who struck and killed an Upper East Side woman last winter will walk away with a $500 fine.

Diego Tapia-Ulloa, 23, was rounding the corner at First Avenue and E. 90th Street on the evening of January 24 when he hit 35-year-old Laurence Renard, who died at the scene. Tapia-Ulloa was arrested and charged with aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle in the third degree.

Renard's death, along with that of pedestrian Jason King, prompted East Side residents and officials to call on NYPD and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to step up enforcement against reckless drivers -- specifically through VTL 1146, the enforcement mechanism behind New York State's new vulnerable user laws.

On July 7, Tapia-Ulloa pled guilty in New York Criminal Court, and the fine was imposed. He was not charged for killing Renard.

"Clearly there should be a greater penalty than $500 for a professional driver who loses his license, and then drives illegally anyway, and kills someone," says attorney Steve Vaccaro of Rankin & Taylor. "For starters, the driver should be prevented from driving for a significant period of time."

But as Vaccaro notes, it's hard to say what additional penalties might have been appropriate, as so little is known about the collision. "Was the truck driver really speeding as he turned the corner, as witnesses interviewed by the media claimed? Did Renard 'dart' in front of the speeding truck? Or was she in the crosswalk crossing with the light? The crash could have been mostly her fault, or mostly the trucker's fault, because almost no meaningful information has been released by NYPD." (Disclosure: Streetsblog has retained Vaccaro for legal services to expedite freedom of information requests.)

The guessing game that routinely ensues after a New York City traffic death is symptomatic of a dysfunctional system that fails victims at every level. Without crucial information withheld by police and prosecutors it is often impossible to judge whether justice has been served. A new law requiring NYPD to release traffic crash data is in its first stages of implementation, but while it will shed light on the location and main contributing factors of each crash, it will not divulge details of crash investigations.

Perversely, it could be that VTL 1146 is making it easier for drivers who injure and kill to escape more serious charges. VTL 1146 is enforced by NYPD and the Department of Motor Vehicles by way of traffic summonses and, while the DA may advise police to apply it in certain cases, it does not fall under the purview of the district attorney’s office except for repeat offenders. (Vance's vehicular crimes staff have described violations of Elle's Law and Hayley and Diego's Law as "traffic infractions.") The dump truck driver who backed over Jason King was charged with violating VTL 1146, as was Edwin Carrasco, the unlicensed driver who on June 30 killed Yolanda Casal and injured her daughter while backing up in pursuit of a parking spot on the Upper West Side. While VTL 1146 was intended to facilitate a minimum charge for careless driving, it looks to be evolving as the go-to in cases where more serious charges seem to be justified.

Like Diego Tapia-Ulloa, Edwin Carrasco was driving with a suspended license, and was also charged with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation. Streetsblog has received no indication from Vance's office that additional charges against Carrasco may be forthcoming. It's entirely possible that the unlicensed driver who killed Yolanda Casal will get off as easy as the unlicensed driver who killed Laurence Renard. But that's only a guess.

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