Gianaris: Time for Albany to Stiffen Penalties for Unlicensed Drivers Who Kill

Photo: @SenGianaris
Photo: @SenGianaris

This morning State Senator Michael Gianaris again called on state lawmakers to pass legislation that would stiffen penalties for motorists who hurt and kill people while driving without a valid license.

Joined by State Senator Toby Stavisky, Assembly Member Francisco Moya, and reps from Transportation Alternatives and Make Queens Safer, Gianaris spoke to the press at Woodside Avenue and 76th Street in Elmhurst, where alleged unlicensed driver Valentine Gonzalez killed an unidentified woman last Sunday.

“How many deaths at the hands of unauthorized drivers will it take before we make sure the punishment fits the crime in these cases?” said Gianaris, according to a press release. “It is heartbreaking to see one family after another suffer the loss of a loved one because irresponsible drivers get behind the wheel when they shouldn’t.”

Gianaris introduced a bill last year to make it a class E felony to cause serious injury or death while driving without a valid license, as long as the license was suspended or revoked for traffic offenses. A second Gianaris bill would require drivers with suspended or revoked licenses to surrender their vehicle registrations and license plates. Margaret Markey is the primary sponsor of both bills in the Assembly.

Gianaris brought the bills after an unlicensed truck driver killed 8-year-old Noshat Nahian on Northern Boulevard in Woodside in December 2013. Weeks later an unlicensed driver killed senior Angela Hurtado in Maspeth. Both drivers were charged with aggravated unlicensed operation. The driver who killed Hurtado pled guilty and was fined $500.

NYPD and city district attorneys typically charge aggravated unlicensed operation, a low-level misdemeanor, when an unlicensed driver kills someone. This offense carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and 30 days in jail, though jail sentences are all but unheard of.

Aggravated unlicensed operation is the same charge that police and prosecutors apply when an unlicensed driver commits a traffic infraction. In practice this means that an unlicensed driver who kills a senior in a crosswalk faces the same penalty as an unlicensed driver who turns without signaling.

State senators voted down the felony bill in the codes committee last session, and the bill stalled in the Assembly codes committee. Lawmakers in both houses failed to move the registration and license plate bill out of their respective transportation committees.

According to Make Queens Safer, three Queens NYPD precincts in the vicinity of Sunday’s crash issued 370 tickets for unlicensed driving in January alone.

“My proposals would create a serious deterrent so that anyone thinking about getting behind the wheel without a license will think twice or face real jail time if they do so and kill or seriously injure someone,” said Gianaris. “I call on my fellow legislators to pass these bills immediately before we face yet another tragedy.”

  • Jeff

    The idea that the penalty for killing someone without a license should be greater than the sum of the penalties for driving without a license, and killing someone while driving in general, reinforces the idea that a license to drive is literally a license to kill.

  • ganghiscon

    There should be a penalty for the companies that employ unlicensed drivers.

  • I see it more as reinforcing the idea that driving is a privilege, not a right.

  • Simon Phearson

    Man, that is a depressing way to put it. But an inescapable inference.

  • qrt145

    Not if you see the “without a license” as an aggravating factor for the killing. Just like the penalty for premeditated murder can be more than the sum of the penalty for “plain murder” and the penalty for meditating. 🙂

  • Simon Phearson

    But that’s exactly what Jeff’s saying. “With a license,” the penalty for killing a pedestrian is usually nothing. “Without a license,” the “aggravating factor” manages to make the killing actually criminal. In other words, it’s like saying that killing without a “license to kill” is just an aggravating factor that makes an otherwise totally-okay homicide into a murder.

  • KillMoto

    I see this as a bridging strategy towards where we want to be. As long as drivers (aka “jurors”) see themselves in the eyes of a killer driver, we lose. When there’s a reason to see that killer as “the other” – whether it’s because he was drunk or she was unlicensed – those jurors can say to themselves “I’d never do that, that’s not me” and are less likely to (conscious or not) exonerate a person whom the state otherwise proves guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

  • Flakker

    “370 tickets for unlicensed driving…” how about arresting these assholes and crushing their cars?

  • qrt145

    The problem then is that the “unaggravated” killing is not being treated seriously enough, not with the idea of treating the lack of license as an aggravating factor. I think it is right to treat it as an aggravating factor, because it makes the crime all that more heinous: people can no longer argue that “accidents happen to good people” when their license was revoked because the state considered them a menace to society when they drive, and yet they chose to drive anyway.

    Note that I would only consider it an aggravating factor when the license was revoked due to driving violations, not due to silly administrative stuff. The case of drivers who have never had a license is more complicated because the state refuses to license some people for reasons that have nothing to do with driving ability (e.g., immigration status).

  • Ian Turner

    If someone is caught driving without a license, then:
    1. If they were authorized to drive the car, it should be seized and forfeited.
    2. If they were not authorized, they should be charged with auto theft.

  • Nathanael

    This is good; however, the problem is less the legistlation, and more the refusal of the police and DAs to enforce even the existing legislation. Note that the existing penalty for “aggravated unlicensed operation” is 30 days in jail… but “jail sentences are all but unheard of”.

    Worse, many of these cases are negligent manslaughter, but the police & DAs simply don’t bother to charge the drivers.

    We’ve witnessed the police repeatedly breaking the law. Prison guards also repeatedly break the law — it’s illegal to shackle pregnant women in NY, but they do it routinely. We’ve watched terrible corruption by DAs who refuse to seriously prosecute criminal police officers whose crimes are caught on camera.

    So I think legislators need to focus on something other than legislation: they need to focus on hiring and funding a special prosecutor to clean out the sickness in the administration of the justice system. This corrupt behavior by DAs, police, prison guards — it’s all illegal — but who’s going to prosecute them?

  • Nathanael

    It should be considered proof of reckless negligence to drive if someone had their licence suspended or revoked for driving violations, and drove anyway. They would then be aware that they couldn’t drive competently, and making a decision to do so anyway.

  • troy

    over 50000 a year killed by unlicensed driver. lets put a stop to unlicensed driving


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