Proposed Hit-and-Run Fines Doubled, But Law Could Hinge on Drivers’ Word

Ahead of a scheduled Tuesday vote by the full City Council, transportation committee members voted today to increase proposed civil penalties for hit-and-run drivers. However, the bill in question still contains language that could make it difficult to apply the new fines.

Intro 371 originally called for fines ranging from $500 to $5,000 for hit-and-run crashes where a driver “knows or has cause to know” an injury has occurred, with fines at the higher end of the scale applied in cases of serious injury and death. After a hearing held earlier this month, Council Members Jimmy Van Bramer and Ydanis Rodriguez, the bill’s primary sponsors, doubled the maximum fine to $10,000, and assigned a minimum fine of $5,000 for fatal crashes.

Committee members passed the bill with a 9-0 vote. “It can, and I believe will, serve as a deterrent to those who would do the same thing to others,” Van Bramer said today, citing three hit-and-run fatalities in that have happened in his district in the last 18 months.

“At the same time, we need our colleagues in Albany to act to make all of us safer,” said Rodriguez, referring to state laws that give drivers who may be impaired by alcohol or drugs an incentive to flee the scene, since the penalty for hit-and-run is less severe than causing death or injury while intoxicated.

While Albany fails to act, by attaching civil penalties at the local level, council members are using what tools are available to them. But as we reported after the initial hearing, the “knows or has cause to know” provision may make the law, if passed, not nearly as effective as it could be. To avoid criminal charges, often all a hit-and-run driver has to do is claim he “didn’t see” the victim, presumably in part because trial outcomes are notoriously unpredictable, even in cases where prosecutors have video evidence.

A new city law that makes it a misdemeanor for a driver to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way employs strict liability, a legal standard based on driver actions, rather than driver intent. Streetsblog asked Van Bramer’s office how the “knew or had reason to know” condition would be satisfied under the bill, and if strict liability-type language was considered instead, but we didn’t get an answer.

Another issue is whether application of the law would depend on NYPD investigations. Of 60 fatal hit-and-runs investigated in 2012, NYPD arrested just 15 drivers, according to Transportation Alternatives. After a hit-and-run driver seriously injured cyclist Dulcie Canton in Bushwick, the victim herself collected evidence pointing to a driver who lives near the crash site, but the detective assigned to the case said he didn’t have time to follow up with the car’s owner.

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