DA Cy Vance: Most Manhattan Traffic Deaths Aren’t Crimes

Sofia Russo, whose daughter Ariel was killed by a Manhattan driver, is swarmed by reporters after asking Manhattan DA Cy Vance to meet with the families of crash victims. Photo: Brad Aaron
Sofia Russo, whose daughter Ariel was killed by a Manhattan driver, is swarmed by reporters after she asked District Attorney Cy Vance to meet with families of crash victims. Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson has agreed to work with Families For Safe Streets to hold drivers accountable for killing pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: Brad Aaron

All Cy Vance wanted to do was talk computer crime at the Yale Club, but Sofia Russo, who lost her daughter to traffic violence, wouldn’t let him stick to the script.

At a Crain’s breakfast in Midtown today, the Manhattan district attorney assured the capacity crowd that his office is going after gangs, targeting terrorists, and “keeping New York safe for business.” He also revealed that in five years he secured indictments in just 190 vehicular cases — including crashes involving drunk driving — which means he has allowed thousands of motorists to go unpenalized for injuring and killing people in traffic.

It’s pretty well established that Vance is serious about “cybercrime.” The Internet, Vance said this morning, is “our modern crime scene,” with fraud and other nefarious activity at “epidemic levels,” committed by perpetrators who “operate with impunity.” Vance touted a new lab dedicated to computer crimes, as well as a prosecutor training program. There are 85 assistant district attorneys assigned to computer-based crime in Vance’s office, he said, 15 of them full-time.

“Please consider this, those of you who are in the business world, my direct appeal,” said Vance. “If you see cybercrime, report it to us. Call me, call the head of our investigation division … and we will respond to you promptly.”

Though he promised to make traffic justice a priority when he first ran for office in 2009, Vance hasn’t been as committed to holding motorists accountable for causing physical harm to pedestrians and cyclists. His prepared remarks didn’t touch on the thousands of people killed and injured by reckless Manhattan drivers on his watch — victims whose experiences with the DA’s office have often been frustrating. Traffic violence didn’t come up this morning until moderator Erik Engquist, Crain’s assistant managing editor, asked him the following:

“It’s basically legal in New York City, with the exception of the $250 fine you get, to turn into a crosswalk and run over pedestrians — kill them, maim them, mutilate them — if you stop, get out, express sympathy, and pay your $250 fine for failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. During your campaign in 2009 you said that that was wrong, that if you kill a person it was a crime, and this ‘rule of two’ … that you have to be doing something else at the same time to justify a conviction, like be drunk for instance, should not apply. In fact, doesn’t it still apply? Have you really kept to that?”

Here was Vance’s response, edited for gaps in our audio:

“The rule of two is really not our deciding point. [Cases are based on] whether or not we have conduct that is criminal. Not negligent, but criminal … gross recklessness and intentional conduct. What I can say is it is an enormous tragedy, it goes without saying, for anybody to be involved in an accident, whether it’s a fatal accident or an accident with injury. And … family members are understandably filled with grief, and I appreciate that. I also appreciate that my job as district attorney is to prosecute cases that are criminal, and if I do other than that then I think I would be doing the system a disservice. I can tell you, Eric, that since taking office I have issued 190 indictments in vehicular cases, 37 of those for vehicular assault, and several for vehicular homicide. So what I want you to understand is that we have in fact taken criminal action against a significant number of [unintelligible] in these cases, and we continue to work with the legislature as they evaluate whether the law should be changed … But it’s not something that I take lightly, or that is not important to me.”

As Engquist started to ask his next question, Russo, whose 4-year-old daughter Ariel was killed by an unlicensed teen driver during a police chase, stood from her seat in the audience. While Engquist tried to shout her down, then tried to talk over her, Russo asked Vance if he would meet with Families For Safe Streets.

Vance didn’t address Russo, but when Engquist asked him about Ariel’s case — how Franklin Reyes, her alleged killer, who was later charged for dragging a police officer during a traffic stop, was allowed back behind the wheel — Vance became agitated, and indicated that a judge released Reyes pending trial. (Reyes, who was charged with manslaughter, fits the profile of motorists prosecuted by Vance, since the crash allegedly involved several aggravating factors.)

Engquist then pointed out that Vance has filed homicide charges in a relative handful of fatal crashes, and asked what factors prevented him from doing more.

“Because we do not believe after an investigation that the facts prove a crime,” Vance replied. Without mentioning names, Vance cited the case of Faysal Himon, the cab driver who during an admitted fit of road rage accelerated onto a Midtown sidewalk, striking a cyclist and tourist Sian Green, whose leg had to be amputated. Vance filed no charges.

“The taxi driver hit the accelerator for whatever reason,” he said. Based on witness interviews, video evidence, and EDR data, Vance said, “It was a tragedy, but it was not a crime.”

While he has “every empathy” for people who have lost family members, Vance said, “my job really is to make sure that the cases we take to court as crimes we believe are crimes, and we believe we can prove them.”

A few points here. Vance didn’t mention the Right of Way Law, a new tool that allows police and prosecutors to bring misdemeanor charges against drivers who strike a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. If Vance is using the law as intended, you’d think he would be eager to take credit for it. And if Vance is working with Albany to strengthen weak vehicular crime statutes, like he said, this is big news.

Finally, drivers kill or injure thousands of pedestrians and cyclists in Manhattan annually — approximately 10 victims every day. Studies have shown that motorists are culpable in most of those cases. If Vance has gotten indictments for just 190 crashes in five years, people who walk and bike in Manhattan essentially have no protection under the law.

Russo was mobbed by reporters after Vance left the podium. Streetsblog has learned that Vance’s chief of staff gave her a business card and agreed to a meeting.

We’re curious to see if Vance takes Russo up on her request and joins Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson in agreeing to work with Families For Safe Streets to hold deadly drivers accountable.

  • Mark Walker

    If a driver splattered one of Vance’s loved ones all over the pavement, that would be “a tragedy,” he says, but “not a crime.” I hope he gets the chance to experience the distinction firsthand.

  • Jeff

    I don’t.

    Did you really just say that you hope somebody’s family member gets brutally killed? You sure you aren’t getting caught up in the whole, “It’s not really a gruesome death if there’s an automobile involved”?

  • Brad Aaron

    “[Cases are based on] whether or not we have conduct that is criminal. Not negligent, but criminal … gross recklessness and *intentional conduct*.”

    “The taxi driver hit the accelerator *for whatever reason*.”

    These statements don’t align. If intent determines which cases are prosecuted, Vance should damn well know the reason the taxi driver hit the accelerator.

  • Jesse

    I am confident there is a typo there: he meant “he *never* gets the chance”. That is more likely what was intended than what was written.

  • Cowboy_X

    another classic: “Vance dropped assault charges against a hit-and-run driver accused of intentionally ramming a cyclist with an SUV” http://www.streetsblog.org/2014/10/22/da-cy-vance-250-fine-for-motorist-accused-of-deliberately-striking-cyclist/

    “Cases are based on whether or not we have conduct that is criminal. Not negligent, but criminal.” Whatever you say, dude.

  • Mark Walker

    Oh, I meant it, but I’ll rephrase it anyway. Would Vance’s attitude change if he actually experienced what the families of victims experience? What would it take to make him share their experience?

  • JK

    Thank you Eric Enquist for holding Vance accountable and simply asking him to do his job — all of his job. I am very proud of Families for Safe Streets and Ms Russo for turning their grief into action, and confronting Vance in a public setting and making him address the ugly, inconvenient truth that he is doing almost nothing to hold people behind the wheel accountable for hurting and killing other people. Driving is not a magic condition that transports a person beyond the law or morality, and the DA’s need to stop seeing it that way.

  • al

    Furthermore, drivers have the responsibility, the duty, to operate their vehicles safely. That means looking where they’re going, observing right of way, not speeding, not blasting through red lights and stop signs. Negligence is not an excuse. Its proof of at least partial culpability.

    Would we accept 250+ fatal negligent “accidental” firearm discharges every year in NYC? NO! Would we accept 250+ fatal crane incidents every year? NO! How about 250+ fatal train collisions/year? NO!

    P.S. They need to screen for eating, texting or cell calls while driving at crash sites with pedestrians and cyclists. It leads to tunnel vision and collisions.

  • Brad Aaron

    “Driving is not a magic condition that transports a person beyond the law or morality, and the DA’s need to stop seeing it that way.”


  • Andrew

    How does Cy Vance get to work in the morning? Does he receive special parking privileges, not available to the general public, that might influence that decision?

  • JudenChino

    Yah, that was pretty shocking. The Cabbie straight up road raged at the bicyclist who was legally permitted to be in his way (to say nothing of the fact that we’re talking mid-day 6th ave/midtown, i.e., it doesn’t make a difference, you’re going to be jammed up regardless of which lane you’re in).

  • JudenChino

    I get where you’re coming from but no need to be nasty. Yes, I personally harbor — I wouldn’t say a desire and hope doesn’t seem right either — a belief that it’d be better if the next person taken from us, is someone who happens to be “connected” because that’d increase the likelihood that actual reforms happen. But I don’t “hope” anyone ever experiences the feeling of losing a loved one unnecessarily.

    Also, given that Dershowitz’s sister-in-law was run over by a mail truck and the best he was able to get was pushing the DA to try the USPS driver for, I shit you not, leaving the scene (not even charged with causing death http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/jury-clears-driver-accident-killed-defense-lawyer-alan-dershowitz-sister-in-law-article-1.1163764 ), I am doubtful if “celebrity/connected” victims of street violence will, in of itself, bring us much reform. I think, regular people like Ms. Sofia Russo, making their case in all available forums, is probably the best way to “put a face on the victims” to advocate for necessary reforms.

  • Emmily_Litella

    Commenter please.

  • BBnet3000

    Not negligent, but criminal

    I’m not a lawyer but aren’t there plenty of crimes on the books based on negligence? If we aren’t going to use these when a person is killed, when are we going to use them?

  • BBnet3000

    Its a certainty that there’s more deaths coming. Morbid as the thought is, would you rather more people died or fewer?

  • Joe R.

    Someone should have this engraved on a plaque sent to Cy Vance’s office.

  • Joe R.

    I hate to say this but I suspect the reason the UPS driver wasn’t charged was because Dershowitz was on a bike instead of on foot. The food chain in NYC seems to be cop>driver>pedestrian with connections>pedestrian with no connections>cyclist with or without connections.

    Cyclists are at the bottom of the food chain, period, in this city, both because relatively few ride bikes, and because of all the anti-bike hysteria spread by the media. When you get killed on a bike, the reflexive reactive is it’s your own fault because you either broke some traffic law (even if you didn’t), weren’t wearing a helmet, or were riding on streets you shouldn’t have been which are deemed “too dangerous” for cyclists.

  • ADN

    So, where exactly does Cy Vance draw the line between reckless, negligent, criminal driving and “tragic accident?”

    We know from Vance’s vigorous prosecution of Afroduck that uploading YouTube video of a 100 mph spin around Manhattan (in which no one was harmed) is something that Vance considers criminal. Yet, running over a 9-year-old boy and his dad as they cross West End Avenue in the crosswalk with the right-of-way and killing the boy is something that Vance views as just a “tragic accident.”

    So, how does Vance decide? Where between Afroduck and Cooper Stock does Vance draw the line between crime and accident? This is the law, it’s not conceptual art so I assume that Vance has this spelled out somewhere pretty specifically. Seems like the public deserves some exact definitions from the so-called People’s Prosecutor.

    Then again, it also seems like our lawmakers decided when they passed the 19-190 Right-of-Way Law how this would go. Why isn’t Vance enforcing that law?

  • Bklynite

    “Though he promised to make traffic justice a priority when he first ran for office in 2009…”

    Seems pretty simple to me. If Vance was lying when he made the promise that he didn’t need the rule of two to prosecute more reckless drivers, he doesn’t have the integrity to hold his position. If he wasn’t lying and truly believed it but instead broke his promise “for whatever reason,” then he’s spineless.

    Perhaps it’s not a surprise that he’d choose to go after parody Twitter accounts intend of people who kill children. Is this the kind of man Manhattan wants protecting them?

  • Ian Dutton

    Having sat on a jury for a “negligent homicide” case, uh, what’s the first word there again?

    When someone chooses to get from point A to point B using a motor vehicle, they take the responsibility not just for their acts of wonton violence but also for unintentional tragedy which may be wrought by that choice. Have a problem with that? Then join me on the subway or the sidewalk.

  • Brooklynite

    Or airplane!

  • Ralph

    Vance has not suffered this pain our families suffer everyday. And the people who get injured and the driver never stops. He does not seem to want to get involved which I cannot comprehend, this is a no brainer we cannot leave pedestrians this unsafe. It is an outrage.

    I don’t wish anyone get harmed, believe me my family is so devasted for our losses. But we must keep pushing reckless driving cannot be condoned till it sinks into Vance’s head.

  • Alex

    Has Vance ever heard of “criminal negligence”? And I’ve pointed out so many times before that, in virtually every other situation, lack of intent does not get someone off the hook for killing another human. WHY does it when a car is involved?

  • Anandakos

    The jerk is a part of the drivers’ team. Don’t expect him to come down on his homies.

    Drivers will continue to kill pedestrians with impunity because they think there’s something lesser about someone who chooses to walk rather than drive. Either such a person is a “lameo” who can’t drive, a “loser” and can’t afford a car or a “nutcase” who wants to waste time. All of which are grounds for termination when the opportunity presents itself.

  • R

    Because Cy Vance.

  • Matthias

    I don’t like the sentiment and I certainly don’t wish Vance’s loved ones any harm, but I think I understand what Mark means. If someone close to Vance were to be killed or seriously injured by a driver, the result would likely be immediate action on his part to save many lives. An “ordinary” person’s death seldom has the impact that it should.

  • JoshNY

    Realistically, this isn’t unique to Vance.

  • JoshNY

    Mmm, wonton.

  • qrt145

    Criminal negligence does require some sort of intent. Not intent for the ultimate result (e.g., killing someone), but intentionally doing something that a “reasonable person” would know to be dangerous and stupid. The problem is that NY’s legal concept of a “reasonable driver” was taken from the Grand Theft Auto video game.

  • Erik Engquist

    Thanks, JK. Just trying to do my job. Also, I respectfully disagree with Brad Aaron’s use of the phrase “shout her down” to describe what the founder of this very blog told me was a well-handed response to the situation. If the scene makes it into the documentary, I don’t think people will view it as shouting.

  • Brad Aaron

    It sounded like shouting to me, Erik, in person and on my recording. I don’t think it was over the top, or even necessarily unwarranted, given the circumstances. I’d say Ms. Russo was shouting too.

  • Erik Engquist

    Your post doesn’t say Ms. Russo was shouting. It says she “asked” Vance a question.

  • I don’t see this empty suit changing his colors. But unless his office falls apart completely, who will take on Vance in 2017?

  • the_big_bandicoot

    In what other situation can you kill and maim without any serious legal consequences? Accidental discharge of a firearm, leaving a kid in car, are prosecuted as “criminal” if you kill someone. Driving too fast, even if no one is injured: criminal under Vance. Untaxed cigarettes: criminal.

    But riding a bike without care, and killing a pedestrian in central park: not prosecuted. Driving a car without care, killing: not prosecuted.

  • Maggie

    So I tried to comment on the Crains article but it didn’t work. I’m so proud of Sofia Russo and Families for Safe Streets for their bravery. Cy Vance’s office has completely abdicated responsibility and common sense on this enormously important issue. His record is deplorable and I’m glad he’s hearing the public reaction. Thank you to those who are pressing him on this.

  • Brad Aaron

    Because that’s what she did, after the two of you stopped talking at the same time.

    You held the position of power. You had the microphone. I described what happened as I saw and heard it.

  • sammy davis jr jr

    Great reporting, Brad!!


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