Families of Traffic Violence Victims Demand Justice From District Attorneys

Photo: Stephen Miller
Judy Kottick speaks about her daughter Ella Bandes, who was killed by a turning MTA bus driver in 2013. No charges were filed. Photo: Stephen Miller

Braving the cold, more than 150 people gathered on the steps of City Hall yesterday to demand that New York City’s five district attorneys begin filing charges against reckless drivers who kill and injure New Yorkers on the streets.

“The five New York City district attorneys have failed to do their job,” said Amy Cohen, who helped found Families For Safe Streets after her 12-year-old son Sammy was killed in 2013. No charges were filed against the driver who killed her son. “New York City has a culture of lawlessness on our streets, because reckless drivers are not held accountable,” she said.

Charges for reckless or negligent driving are exceedingly rare absent other aggravating circumstances, even in cases where the victim dies. Since January 2012, more than 500 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed by drivers in NYC, but in only two known occasions have city DAs filed homicide charges against a driver who was not drunk, fleeing the scene, running from police, or intentionally attacking the victim, according to records kept by Streetsblog. Fewer than 2 percent of drivers in non-DUI cases are prosecuted, according to Families For Safe Streets.

Families for Safe Streets is asking for five changes from the DAs:

  • Comprehensive Vision Zero training for all staff and changing terminology from “accidents,” which implies a lack of fault, to “crashes” or “collisions.”
  • Work with NYPD to widely prosecute misdemeanor driving offenses in criminal court, including violations of Section 19-190, also known as the Right of Way Law, which creates criminal penalties for drivers who injure or kill pedestrians and cyclists with the right of way.
  • Significantly increase the number of reckless sober drivers charged with felony crimes and lead the charge for city and state legislative changes that may be necessary.
  • Introduce “restorative justice” and other alternative sentencing practices as part of the pre-plea conference for vehicular violence cases, with the input of victims and families.
  • Systematically compile and share data about charges filed and outcomes in vehicular violence cases.

Three of the city’s five district attorneys are on the ballot this year: Queens DA Richard Brown, who was first elected in 1991; Bronx DA Robert Johnson, who took office in 1989; and Staten Island DA Daniel Donovan, who was first elected to the position in 2003 and is now running for the congressional seat vacated by Michael Grimm. Ken Thompson defeated incumbent Charles Hynes in the race for Brooklyn DA in 2013. The same year, Manhattan DA Cy Vance faced only token opposition before cruising to a second term.

When he first ran for Manhattan DA in 2009, Vance said criminal convictions should act as a deterrent to reckless drivers and that reforming the law in Albany would require “a full court press.” He promised to challenge the “rule of two,” a case law precedent that has been interpreted to mean that sober drivers must commit at least two traffic violations before a criminal charge can stick in court. On a since-removed section of his campaign website, Vance said:

There is no reason why two traffic violations are necessary in order to support a conviction of criminally negligent homicide. I view the “Rule of Two” as the result of case law which should be modified to reflect the reality that one vehicular crime is fully capable of killing. Although in recent years this notion has been applied by the courts in a less strict manner — it is indisputable that it does not take two violations to kill someone. Many violations — speeding, running a red light, or failing to stop at a stop sign are more than dangerous enough to take a life.

Since taking office, however, Vance’s office has failed to challenge the “rule of two” and has not made reforming traffic violence laws in Albany a priority. His office rarely files criminal charges against sober reckless drivers, including the cab driver who killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock on the Upper West Side last year.

“My son is dead. Why hasn’t District Attorney Vance prosecuted killer drivers, as he promised he would in 2009?” asked Dana Lerner, Cooper’s mother. “Mr. Vance, wherever you are, you need to take action instead of making false campaign promises.”

  • Mathew Smithburger

    Several weeks ago I received a ticket in Central Park while sitting in a crosswalk on my bike waiting at a light. My summons was for “failure to yield to a pedestrian”…the officer who issued the ticket simply wanted to go home and had a summons quota to fill and I was the lucky recipient. I tell this story because on my way home yesterday while cycling down Broadway a driver on a cross street drove his care right through a red light and nearly killed me and several pedestrians. I caught up to him and at the next light and I asked him how many times his license had been suspended. His reply was “How did you know my license had been suspended?”

    My point here is a simple one. NYC’s traffic safety fails in two critical points: Enforcement (the NYPD) and administration (traffic laws). There are simple solutions, however, that would change this immediately and drastically.

    The NYPD is not capable or willing to perform real meaningful traffic enforcement yet they are instrumental in standing in the way of allowing red light and speeding cameras at intersections. Technology as it exists today is capable of doing the job that the NYPD is incapable or unwilling to perform. Cameras can do the a job that should be done 24 x 7 365 days a year and it will save lives. Administration fails because we have an automatic sentencing law for those who carry an unlicensed handgun in NYC but an unlicensed driver (even if his licensed has been revoked or suspended) faces no such penalty. Right now Vision Zero remains Zero Vision.

    Deploying cameras and enacting automatic sentencing for driving with a suspended or revoked license would also have an immediate and chilling effect on driver behavior that costs lives, speeding, running red lights as well as remove those drivers from the roads that put the public at the most risk. I recall the words of the officer who handed me my ticket “tell your cycling buddies that we are serious about saving lives. Spread the word.” Sure, sure we are.

  • dporpentine

    The thing is, to many cops and, I’m sure, to plenty of people in district attorneys’ offices, the death and injury suffered by pedestrians and cyclists *is* justice. They were jaywalking, after all, or doing all that bike stuff. They deserved what they got.

    Regardless, I’m very interested by the call for a restorative justice model for addressing at least part of the traffic violence problem. My very deep thanks to all involved.

  • Wondering

    Congratulations on what appears to have been a well attended and covered event. (Heard about it on the headlines on WQXR this a.m.)

    Any insight on why it was held behind the security perimeter? I arrived late and had some tools in my bag. Faced with either leaving them on my bike or taking them through security I ended up staying ‘outside’. There were others in the park interested in what was going on but also deterred by the police check point. I’ve not been to demonstrations there before, so I’m curious if this was a deliberate decision by TA or something required of groups wanting to demonstrate at City Hall.

  • Joe R.

    There should be an automatic forfeiture of the vehicle you’re driving as minimum penalty for driving with a suspended or revoked license, along with a permanent license revocation. That would get lots of bad drivers off the roads quickly as few people could afford another car after theirs had be confiscated (doubly true if they still have loan payments remaining on their forfeited vehicle).

    I think you could have done all of us a public service if you could have grabbed that guy’s car keys, then thrown them down a sewer. People like that probably shouldn’t even be riding a bike, let alone driving a motor vehicle.

  • Seer

    Shame on TT for exploiting these poor families!

  • Rabi

    Did you try going through security? I was on a bike with a quick-release seatpost and they let me leave it at the checkpoint when I went in.

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Is Manhattan DA Cy Vance Delivering on Traffic Justice?

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The 2009 race for Manhattan district attorney presented a rare opportunity for proponents of safer streets. After decades of indifference toward victims of vehicular violence from Robert Morgenthau, advocates succeeded in making traffic justice a prominent campaign issue for his would-be successors. Contenders for the office pledged to take definitive action to reduce the carnage […]