Sunday: Families For Safe Streets to Train Spotlight on Feckless NYC DAs

Left to right: District attorneys Richard Brown, Dan Donovan, and Robert Johnson are up for re-election in 2015. NYC DAs are a major obstacle to Mayor de Blasio's Vision Zero program.
Left to right: District attorneys Richard Brown, Dan Donovan, and Robert Johnson are up for re-election in 2015. NYC DAs are a major obstacle to Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero program.

Since January 2012, Streetsblog has maintained a database of all known pedestrians and cyclists killed by drivers in New York City. We collect as much information on each crash as possible, including any charges filed against the motorists who took the victims’ lives.

Of over 400 fatalities tracked by Streetsblog in three years, in only two instances that we know of did a city district attorney file homicide charges against a driver for killing a pedestrian or cyclist following a crash that did not involve one or more aggravating factors, such as impairment by alcohol or drugs, hit-and-run, evading police, or striking a victim intentionally. In 2014, the inaugural year of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, there were no such prosecutions.

“Why is it that if you kill someone while driving drunk, the district attorney will press charges, but not if you kill or maim someone through reckless behavior on the road,” said Amy Cohen, whose 12-year-old son Sammy Cohen Eckstein was killed by a driver in Brooklyn in 2013, in a press release from Transportation Alternatives. On Sunday, TA and Families For Safe Streets will hold a rally at City Hall to “call on the City’s five district attorneys to become partners in the Vision Zero effort to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries.”

In the past three years, according to Streetsblog data, New York City motorists killed at least 27 children age 14 and under. Five of those drivers were charged for causing a death. Of those five, two were also accused of DWI, one fled the scene, and one was being chased by police. Only once since January 2012 has a city DA charged a sober driver who remained at the scene, and was not fleeing police, for fatally striking a child.

One year ago Saturday, a cab driver hit 9-year-old Cooper Stock and his father in an Upper West Side crosswalk. Cooper was killed, his father injured. The driver was ticketed for careless driving and failing to yield the right of way, but NYPD and Manhattan DA Cy Vance filed no criminal charges. “Most New Yorkers don’t understand the reality that a driver can kill or maim your loved one, and then get back in their car and drive off, with no consequences,” said Dana Lerner in the TA press release.

TA wants the City Council, which has a say in how much money DAs get from the city budget, to begin holding oversight hearings on whether prosecutors are helping advance the goals of Vision Zero, as well as new legislation to compel DAs to release information about their cases. Three district attorneys — Richard Brown in Queens, Robert Johnson in the Bronx, and Dan Donovan in Staten Island — are up for re-election this year.

“District attorneys are the people’s prosecutors, and they must champion public safety,” said Paul Steely White, TA executive director. “The public needs more information about how D.A.s determine whether to prosecute after serious crashes, and how often they bring charges.”

Sunday’s rally begins at 2 p.m. on the City Hall steps.

  • tbatts666

    Let’s hope these DAs wake up.

    In the meantime let’s do more direct action. Keep these articles coming.

  • Alabaster Plaster

    I have seen this graphic so many times now, I think Streetsblog needs to have a contest to name the triptyc!

  • ddartley

    Can someone with some legal insight weigh in on the following questions? First, isn’t one of the biggest problems the fact that DAs keep saying caselaw prevents them from having any chance of success in these cases? And what if there’s some truth to their saying that? Then what do advocates demand? Would it be a reasonable for advocates to say “yeah, but too bad, prosecute anyway, even if you think you’ll lose?” From my uninformed point of view, I think that might be a good idea. I’d just like to know if it makes any sense. And if prosecutors did actually get some wins on tough cases, then might not those actually create some better caselaw? I really don’t know if I’m onto something here, but if I am, then I think advocates really should push DAs to prosecute even those cases they think they’re likely to lose. Even if “finite DA resources” is an argument against taking on tough cases, I think the severity of the public health problem that road injuries represent warrants the resources.

  • Brad Aaron

    You’re onto something.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I think the legal system looks upon lost cases as the harassment of innocents. They could charge anyone with anything and screw up their lives if they were willing to lose all the cases.

    Bottom line, if they lose the cases in cases where people obviously did things, then the public has decided what the did is de facto “legal.” If the public decides otherwise, things will change.

    The first start is asserting that when no charges are filed, something has been legalized.

  • SteveVaccaro

    I agree there is a major problem in how the laws that apply to sober reckless driving are being interpreted by judges. This is an additional hurdle for DAs, on top of the fundamental hurdle that a conviction for any crime requires convincing an entire jury of the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

    For a DA to have anywhere near a 90%+ conviction rate, means the DA is playing it extremely safe and taking only “slam dunk” cases. On the other hand, I would agree that a DA with a 40% conviction rate is open to the criticism that s/he is “harassing innocents.” There is a “sweet spot” somewhere between 40% and 90% conviction rate that none of the NYC DAs has the guts to go near.

  • Interceptor III

    Larry, Moe, and Curly. The Future Former DAs.

  • ddartley

    Thanks. Larry’s comment below did give me great pause, even though I’ve been wishing for more traffic prosecutions (based on the little I know) for a few years. But in cases where the language of the statute a driver could be charged with clearly matches the incident, and/or where the only known obstacle is specific, suspect caselaw such as “rule of two,” DAs should fucking step up.

    You got me thinking about conviction percentages, which I’d never thought about before, and I didn’t realize were such a big (and maybe overvalued) metric. According to a couple sources I was able to find with a super-cursory search, SI’s 2013 conviction rate was over 98%; Queens was ~95; Manhattan’s was 93.6; Brooklyn was just under 93, and Bronx was around 84. Not sure if, as generally a liberal person, I want DAs to allow ALL categories of convictions to drop dramatically due to more frequent prosecuting in perpetuity, but considering what a huge public health issue traffic injuries are (and considering the little I know about the actual laws), I do wish they would aim lower by prosecuting more. Of course this all raises the very important question of what the *traffic-specific* conviction rates are. Anyone know, before I try a deeper dig?

  • Debbie

    Thank you for writing this article and for exposing these awful truths. As a resident of California, I feel that we are experiencing the same problems with DAs not prosecuting at-fault drivers who kill pedestrians. I am trying to get my voice heard about this problem and trying to implement a Vulnerable Road Users law here so that these at-fault drivers get some kind of penalty, although no penalty is enough to reverse the horror and damage of seeing my son being run over and killed right in front of me.

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