Will Meaningful Hit-and-Run Reform Be on Albany’s 2016 Agenda?

Governor Cuomo has vetoed bills that would have set back efforts to reform state hit-and-run statutes.

For years, prosecutors and traffic safety advocates have asked Albany lawmakers to fix state law that rewards drunk drivers who flee the scene of a serious crash, since the penalty for hit-and-run can be less severe than the penalty for drunk drivers who stay at the scene.

Legislation passed by the Assembly and State Senate this year was intended to help by creating the offense of aggravated leaving the scene. But the proposed new law would have been all but useless, since it would have severely limited instances when the charge could be applied.

A coalition of prosecutors and advocates, including crash victims and their loved ones, had been calling for the bill to be amended or vetoed since last summerInstead of creating a complicated new offense, prosecutors want Albany to simply elevate felony penalties under existing law, by changing the charge for leaving the scene of a serious injury from a class E to a class D felony, and the charge for a fatal hit-and-run from a class D felony to class C. (Class E is New York’s least severe felony category.)

Hit-and-run crashes are an epidemic in New York City, and offenders are almost never held accountable. A Transportation Alternatives report released last week found that of 4,000 hit-and-run crashes in 2015 that resulted in injury and death, fewer than 1 percent of drivers were prosecuted. Only 50 cases were handled by trained NYPD crash investigators, with 28 drivers arrested. The tiny fraction of NYC offenders who are prosecuted often avoid severe penalties.

Prosecutors feared that adoption of the law as passed by the Assembly and State Senate would have deterred the legislature from enacting reforms long sought by law enforcers.

Cuomo vetoed the twin bills last Friday.

From a statement released Saturday by TA Executive Director Paul White:

Governor Cuomo recognized the need for stronger and simpler legislation without the serious flaws of these bills. Even the sponsors, State Senator Funke and Assembly Member Thiele, supported the veto of their own bills. The legislature must now produce a version that aligns the penalty of leaving the scene of an injury-crash with the penalty for DWI, and which removes the perverse incentive under current law. We look forward to seeing Governor Cuomo sign a stronger bill in 2016.

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