DA Cy Vance: $250 Fine for Motorist Accused of Deliberately Striking Cyclist
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance dropped assault charges against a hit-and-run driver accused of intentionally ramming a cyclist with an SUV, allowing the defendant to plead guilty to leaving the scene and pay a small fine, according to court documents and the victim’s attorney, Steve Vaccaro.
Vaccaro says the case was one of several handled by his firm, Vaccaro and White, in which Vance’s office declined or otherwise failed to pursue assault charges against motorists and pedestrians who attacked cyclists or purposefully hit them with motor vehicles.
According to Vaccaro and a witness affidavit [PDF], at around 5:00 p.m. on July 13, 2013, Michael (not his actual name) was riding his bike on Avenue B on the Lower East Side. Avenue B is a narrow two-way street with no bike lanes and parking on both sides. To avoid being doored, Michael was riding in the center of his lane. When a motorist approached Michael from behind, tailgating and honking, he responded by flipping the driver off.
Approaching the intersection of Avenue B and E. 13th Street, Michael slowed for a red light. According to the affidavit, the driver, still behind him, accelerated, striking the back of Michael’s bike and flipping him over the handlebars, causing him to hit his head on the ground. With Michael in the street bleeding from his face and head, the motorist swerved around him and attempted to drive off. A second motorist on the opposite side of the intersection tried to block the way, but the SUV driver went around the vehicle and left the scene.
Witnesses noted the SUV’s plate number, and the driver was identified by NYPD as 33-year-old Jose Henriquez, of Queens.
Michael suffered lacerations to his face. Despite his injuries and the circumstances of the crash, NYPD and prosecutors with Vance’s office initially charged Henriquez only with leaving the scene. “We went out and got the witnesses to establish that it was a deliberate strike, and to the DA’s credit, they added assault charges,” says Vaccaro. “Now, inexplicably and without justification, they have dropped them.”
Charges against Henriquez were upgraded to include third degree assault and second degree aggravated harassment. Third degree assault, the top charge, is a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. After months of delays, Henriquez was set to go to trial Tuesday. But on Monday afternoon, the assistant district attorney assigned to the case notified Vaccaro and Michael that, after consulting with her supervisor, Vance’s office offered to allow Henriquez to plead to leaving the scene of an accident with property damage. Henriquez accepted and was sentenced to a fine of $250.
Vaccaro says the ADA was intent on prosecuting the case. He believes the decision to drop the more serious charges apparently came from supervisors within the DA’s office, and reflects a pattern of failing to aggressively prosecute cases of deliberate assaults on bicyclists.
“At least 10 of our firm’s clients in the last four years have been the victims of intentional assaults while bicycling in Manhattan, and of those, in four cases, there were very strong independent eyewitness accounts establishing the intent to assault,” says Vaccaro. “Of those four strong assault cases referred to DA Cy Vance, one resulted in a plea to disorderly conduct, one resulted in a plea of hit-and-run, and two were dismissed for lack of diligent prosecution on ‘speedy trial’ grounds. That prosecutorial record gives cyclists no comfort that aggressive, road-raging drivers will face meaningful consequences for their intentional assaults.”
Vaccaro says it’s troublesome that Vance dropped the assault and harassment charges without consulting the victim, and notified him of the plea after the fact on the eve of trial. But more worrying is what this case and others like it mean for cyclists’ safety on the streets of Manhattan.
“Our city functions on the premise that people can freely operate deadly weapons on our streets — cars — and can be trusted to do so responsibly,” Vaccaro says. “When a motorist commits a deliberate strike, it goes right to the heart of our urban social compact and should be punished as surely and severely as gun violence. When Cy Vance was running for district attorney, he stated repeatedly that he understood the vulnerability of cyclists — invoking the fact that his own son used a bike for transportation in the city — and promised to protect us. He is failing in that promise.”
Streetsblog has a request in with Vance’s office for comment on the Henriquez case. We will update here if we get a statement.