Leaving the Scene of a Fatal Crash Now Legal in New York City

Time was, all a driver had to do to get away with killing someone with a car in New York City was prove sobriety and stay at the scene. But given the outcome of two recent cases it seems that, at least when the victim is a cyclist, police and prosecutors are flexible on the latter requirement.

Marilyn Dershowitz and Mathieu Lefevre were killed by hit-and-run drivers who were exonerated by police and prosecutors.

It took days for NYPD to track down the driver of a flatbed truck who ran over Mathieu Lefevre in East Williamsburg on October 18. According to Erika Lefevre, who continues to wait for a full account of her son’s death, police said the truck was found two blocks away, and showed visible damage from the collision. She was also told that charges had been dropped against the driver — whose name she still doesn’t know — though she is doubtful charges were ever filed.

A statement from NYPD in today’s Metro seems to confirm her suspicion.

The driver left the scene — cops told Gothamist that he didn’t know he had hit anyone — and no charges have been filed in the case.

“There’s no criminality,” an NYPD spokesman told Metro. “That’s why they call it an accident.”

The NYPD spokesman quoted in the Metro story is not only startlingly insensitive, revealing the department’s casual attitude toward traffic violence, he’s also playing fast and loose in his interpretation of the law. Whatever caused the collision between the driver and Mathieu Lefevre, it is illegal in New York State to leave the scene of a crash.

According to state traffic code, anyone “knowing or having cause to know that personal injury has been caused to another person” due to a collision is required to stop and notify authorities. Leaving the scene of an incident that results in death is a class D felony punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and up to seven years in jail.

It appears that the decision to file or not file charges in the Lefevre crash hinged on whether the driver knew he struck the victim. According to Erika Lefevre, NYPD says the driver was “likely unaware” of the collision. For a crash that killed someone, this may be a thin reed on which to hang a defense, but it’s apparently enough for police and the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes to consider the case closed.

“The issue of what the driver knew is a critical element of the case,” says Juan Martinez, general counsel for Transportation Alternatives. “If the DA can’t prove that the driver knew he was involved in the crash, the case fails and the driver can’t be convicted of the crime.”

Martinez continues: “So in hit-and-run cases, any driver who claims they didn’t know they killed someone gets a ‘get out of jail free’ card — unless there is a thorough investigation that examines physical evidence, witness statements, etc. Because police have not released the results of their investigation to the family or anyone else, no one knows whether there was a thorough investigation of potentially criminal conduct, or whether they concluded early on that this was an ‘accident’ and simply accepted the driver’s word.”

It is not unheard of for NYPD to pardon drivers after a hit-and-run, even a fatal one. Another notorious instance involved cyclist Marilyn Dershowitz, whose death last July at the hands of a postal truck driver was captured on video. In that case, it was Manhattan DA Cy Vance who initially kept the victim’s loved ones in the dark.

The driver who killed Dershowitz did not stop after the mid-day collision. He later claimed he was unaware he had hit someone. He was not charged.

  • For drunk drivers, now their best course of action is to run.

    1) Drive drunk
    2) Kill someone
    3) Leave
    4) When cops show up at your door, you’re sober and as far as you know, you didnt do anything.
    5) Sorry for the inconvenience, have a nice day sir

  • fj

    Much more pervasive, the indirect structural violence of transportation systems based on cars is not obvious. Of course, the direct violence is. 

  • Anonymous

    Apparently both cyclist were doing something extremely unsafe at the time of impact.  One was riding in between two moving vehicles and got pancaked.  The other was riding late at night without proper lighting on his bike.

  • Anonymous

    The statute says knowing or “or having cause to know.” If there was physical damage to the truck and he drove over Mathieu Lefevre it seems to me that there is enough to raise an question of whether he had cause to know and he should be indicted.

  • moocow

    It seems that the NYPD is giving motorists the benefit of doubt, by implying,
    “They said they didn’t know they hit someone, how callous would you have to be to leave the scene if  you did know you hit someone?”
    Myself and just about anyone who has spent 5 minutes riding on NYC streets know that motorists are very flippant with others safety. 
    I try and put it to new riders so they see it more clearly- these people would screw their grandmothers to get to the red light ahead of you.

  • Anonymous

      My first thought when I heard about this is that the guy could have taken off to dry out before he had to deal with the police.  Obviously this is the correct course of action to avoid any repercussions for killing someone.  I don’t want to convict somebody without any evidence, but since there is no evidence all we can do is speculate.

    The obliviousness loophole?  @Geck:disqus  I am able to understand what the law means in English, and my legal opinion is that it is totally fucked:  as long as you have no idea what is going on around you you are not culpable for the results of your actions.  Duly noted.

    Why won’t they release the driver’s name?  Are they trying to shield him from a civil suit for wrongful death?  That seems like the logical next step.

  • If you want change, you have to keep hammering at the NYPD. Anything short of camping on the sidewalk right in front of the NYPD HQ is just going to get dismissed. 

  • Mattyciii

    A professional driver either saw the victim and hit him anyway (minimum charge: criminal negligence, death resulting), or is incapable of piloting a ten ton killing machine (permanent revocation of professional driving license; standard driving license suspended until perpetrator proves competence by re-applying for license, written and practical test & all). 

  • Driver

    “until perpetrator proves competence by re-applying for license, written and practical test & all).”

    You seem to be under the mistaken assumption that the current licensing standards prove competence. Unfortunately that is not the case.

  • Andrew

    @yahoo-OKEONAMLFIOS5WI7MPQY6SXBCQ:disqus Be careful with that approach.  Somebody might drive up onto the sidewalk, not see you, and run you over.  The sidewalk isn’t a very safe to be.

  • Unbelievable and another example of the alternate universe that most of our society lives in.  It’s more then obvious that the driver of the truck in question was at the very least totally incompetent.  Just as we let repeat criminals out of jail this guy will probably hit somebody else.  Sad

  • Anonymous

    I feel like being completely unaware you killed someone is the definition of negligence.

    I think a big part of the problem is NYPD don’t really live here.  they commute in by car and see cyclists as a nuisance and not as citizens.

  • Glenn

    And there’s apparently no public shame either – the driver of that vehicle killed a grown man, no one knows who that person is except the NYPD. The media has not been given a chance to even follow-up and investigate that person and their prior driving record or past employment. Interview former co-workers who might spill the beans that the guy was an avid cellphone user while driving. He could literally walk up to the victim’s parents and have a lovely chat about the weather and they would have no idea that he was the guy who killed their son.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’ve been thinking about this, and I think I understand what the perspective difference is.

    Motor vehicles are dangerous, and even with the best of intentions, people are killed and crippled.  But still, the thinking is, since “everyone” wants to drive, and “everyone” poses a risk, then “everyone should be willing to accept risk as well.  The prototypical motor vehicle collision, the most common one, is a motor vehicle hitting another motor vehicle.  Each, luck aside, could have been the more responsible.  Each could have made a potentially devastaing mistake.  Both accepted the risk in exchange for being allowed to cause risk to others.

    “That’s why they call it an accident.”  That’s why we have “no fault” insurance.  The idea that the person who made the mistake “could have been me” is why only the most extreme negligent driver behavior — driving drunk or drugged, talking on a cell phone — gets social sanction.

    Now you introduce two other groups of people, cyclists and pedestrians, who don’t consider themselves part of this “I step on the street, I cause and accept risk” deal.  Because pedestrians, unless they are football players sprinting down crowded sidewalks, pose no risk to anyone, and cyclists pose no risk to those in motor vehicles and very little risk to pedestrians.  So they don’t accept the “deal.”

    This not only explains the difference in persepctive, but also why advocates of motor vehicles feel the need to hype the very limited risk cyclists pose to pedestrians.  “See, you are dangerous too, stuff happens.”

    People on Streetsblog see a harmless cyclist run over by a dangerous truck.  To the police, there is no difference between the truck right hooking the cyclist or a truck right hooking a small car and killing its driver.

    The truck might have moved left to make a right, because it needed to make a wide turn.  The car might have assumed the truck was going straight, based on its position, and moved along side it.  The driver of the car was wrong about where the truck was going, the driver of the truck didn’t seen the car in the mirror (hard for a truck to do on the left), mistakes were made, it was dark, stuff happens, there was no ill intent.

     To the police it is no different because it was a cyclist.  To cyclists, it was very different.

  • Interesting, Larry–a “social compact of the road.”  I’ve heard pedestrians say that the reason they don’t want to share rights of way with cyclists, especially in the park, is that they have not “signed on” to the high degree of vigilance required to avoid collisions amidst a crowded environment composed of heterogeneous traffic with different speed and maneuverability characteristics (i.e., pedestrians and cyclists).  Being forced to exercise the degree of vigilance that many cyclists themselves exercise, and expect others to, destroys their pedestrian experience.  That attitude, which I have sympathy for, is supported by your analogy.

  • NDershowitz

    Your facts about the driver who killed Marilyn Dershowitz are incorrect. He stopped for a few seconds after driving over her. He then pulled to the side and waited a bit.. He then drove off.

  • Clarke

    If only this was the case in Sherman McCoy’s time…

  • Larry’s insight leads to a new, persuasive argument for separated bike paths: “Motorists understand that they are taking part in a risky activity by motoring, but why should vulnerable bicyclists be forced to use the same roadways and bear the same risk of accident, but without a protective steel cage?” 

    This is why motorists will assert that biking in traffic is “suicidal,” rather than conceding that motoring in heavy traffic may be homicidal. This “social compact of the road” places the risk of death on the road user herself.

  • Joe R.

    @jrab:disqus I’ve been saying for a long time that separated bike paths are exactly what we need.  And I don’t mean protected bike lanes which still subject cyclists to the usual hazards at every intersection, but completely separate bike roads where cyclists don’t encounter motor vehicles at all, and where one can safely and efficiently operate a bicycle.  It speaks volumes that I’m saying this from the point of view of a person who has cycled on regular roads, with motor vehicles, for 33 years without serious incident.  The skill level required to safely operate a bicycle while dealing with the plethora of road hazards is simply too high.  If we want to make cycling an everyday way to get around, then we need to get cars out of the picture altogether.

  • Construction Engineer

    You missed one this week.  I saw a body in the road on my way to work Monday morning on Grand Central Parkway between Laguardia and the Triboro Bridge.  Pedestrian hit crossing the road? 

  • Imlacey

    There should be stricter laws for people involved in fatal hit & runs. They leave a PERSON lying bleeding & broken in the street like trash & go about their day without a thought for those people waiting at home for the victim to walk through the door.  What if it was a member of your family??????  There is a petition on facebook at this time to make stronger laws for fatal hit & runs. It is the Justice For Erika Hughes petition.  She was killed 7/29/2011 and left a big hole in our family and a 15 month old daughter behind as well who will never know the mother who doted on her night & day.


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