How Hit-and-Run Drivers Get Off Scot-Free: They Tell NYPD “It Wasn’t Me”

Evading consequences for running someone down and driving away is that simple.

Police identified Joseph Alrick's white SUV as the vehicle involved in a hit-and-run that nearly killed Bernadette Karna, but did not arrest Alrick.
Police identified Joseph Alrick's white SUV as the vehicle involved in a hit-and-run that nearly killed Bernadette Karna, but did not arrest Alrick.

If you’re ever struck by a hit-and-run driver in New York, you can’t count on NYPD to apprehend the perp, even if cops identify the car involved. All the driver has to do is tell police someone else must have been behind the wheel.

After experiencing the life-altering trauma of a hit-and-run collision, Bernadette Karna expected police to charge the motorist who struck her. Investigators made progress and tracked down the vehicle. But then the NYPD legal bureau stepped in and said that identifying the owner of the vehicle did not suffice to file charges. The car owner claimed he didn’t do it, and his word was enough for NYPD.

Karna’s ordeal started early in the morning of June 8, 2016, when a northbound driver struck her as she crossed Third Avenue with the walk signal at 41st Street. The driver dragged her 50 feet and sped away without stopping to check on the person he’d hit.

Lying in the ambulance, Karna expected to die. She couldn’t breathe because her ribs were crushed, and she’d sustained fractures to her back, shoulder, knee, and foot. After major surgeries and ten excruciating days in the intensive care unit, Karna, 50 years old at the time of the collision, spent two years in physical therapy, missing 20 months of work and losing $80,000 in foregone wages.

Karna knew police were looking into the crash, but they didn’t give her the results of the investigation, she told the City Council at a hearing last week [PDF]. While she was still recovering from her injuries, she had to file a freedom of information request with NYPD to obtain the crash report. Finally, 20 months after she sent the request, police furnished documentation of their investigation into the crash that nearly ended Karna’s life. Reading it traumatized her all over again.

Using a sophisticated network of cameras known as the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, or LMSI, police had positively identified the perpetrator’s license plate and vehicle, tracking its movements from the crash site to 42nd Street, over to the FDR Drive and south to the Brooklyn Bridge. The white GMC SUV belonged to a man named Joseph Alrick, 49, who lived in Upper Manhattan.

On the afternoon of June 26, 2016, two NYPD detectives from the 17th Precinct knocked on Alrick’s door. He didn’t answer, but later that day he called the lead detective, Christopher Kolenda.

Police identified .
The SUV and license plate belonging to Joseph Alrick that NYPD tracked down using its LMSI cameras.

Alrick confirmed to Kolenda that he owned the SUV, that he was driving it the day of the crash, and that no one else drives the car, according to Kolenda’s crash report. But he denied that he was involved in the crash or even driving on the streets where his license plate was photographed, contradicting the camera evidence. He told Kolenda “that he was a pastor and that he would never lie.”

Alrick said he would come speak to police in person, but soon after hanging up, Kolenda received a call from Alrick’s attorney saying he would make no further statements without her present.

Two months later, on August 31, Kolenda contacted NYPD’s legal bureau “to ascertain if there was any probable cause to arrest the suspect Joseph Alrick.” By this point, he had already done more work than NYPD’s typical hit-and-run crash investigations entail, and appeared to be seeking the go-ahead to make an arrest. He didn’t get it.

Elizabeth Moehle, an NYPD lawyer and former assistant DA with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, advised Kolenda that without either a positive ID of the driver by an eyewitness or a confession from Alrick himself that he was behind the wheel, police lacked legal grounds to arrest him. Charges were never filed.

Karna’s attorney, Steve Vaccaro (whose law firm is a sponsor of Streetsblog NYC), said that Kolenda could have pursued the case further — the crash report indicates that he never inspected Alrick’s car for damage consistent with the collision — but that identifying the owner of the vehicle should nevertheless constitute probable cause for arrest.

Imagine a scenario where all the circumstances are identical except the weapon. “If someone had a gun and shot outside the window of his car, they would have arrested him,” said Vaccaro. “What about this is different?”

In effect, NYPD policy is to give hit-and-run drivers in non-fatal crashes an easy out. The perpetrator can simply say “it wasn’t me” and police will not file charges, even if they identify the vehicle. This high threshold of proof helps explain why police investigators put so little effort into apprehending hit-and-run drivers.

NYPD’s public information office did not respond to a request to interview Elizabeth Moehle about the department’s policy on filing hit-and-run charges, but the pattern is clear.

The owner of the vehicle involved in the hit-and-run crash that severely injured Dulcie Canton in August, 2014, was identified by Canton and Vaccaro, her attorney, but the detective assigned to the case at the 83rd Precinct declined to even interview him.

The 114th Precinct did not apprehend the van driver who, in March, 2013, struck John Kelly and continued driving as Kelly clung to the windshield. Although Kelly could identify the driver and the van’s owner went so far as to name the driver, police did not investigate.

In an August 10 letter to NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan, Vaccaro’s firm flagged five other instances, in addition to the Bernadette Karna case, where NYPD failed to file charges against drivers involved in non-fatal hit-and-runs whose vehicles were identified (read the case summaries on pages 7-10 of this PDF — they’re unreal).

Another thing these hit-and-run motorists tend to have in common, on top of the total impunity NYPD grants them, is a record of repeated dangerous driving.

Joseph Alrick, for instance, was involved in two other crashes less than a year prior to the hit-and-run that severely injured Bernadette Karna, according to DMV records.

Six months before she ran over and killed two children, Dorothy Bruns struck Brandy Williams near Queensbridge Houses and drove off, but police failed to follow up. Cameras had also caught Bruns running red lights or speeding in school zones eight times in the span of a few years.

To intervene where NYPD won’t tread, Council Member Brad Lander proposed Intro 971, which would mandate a safe driving course for people who rack up multiple camera violations and enable the city to impound their vehicles after the fifth offense in 12 months. At a City Council hearing last week, DOT pushed back on Intro 971 and said implementation would have to involve Albany (a legal analysis that Vaccaro disputes — more on that in a later post).

Bernadette Karna told her story to the City Council to support Intro 971, in the belief that it could have influenced the driver of that SUV and prevented the crash that traumatized her. But she may also have prompted the council to wring crash investigation reforms out of NYPD.

Listening to Karna address the council chambers, Speaker Corey Johnson became visibly agitated, read a portion of her testimony aloud, and demanded that NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan look into the department’s hit-and-run investigation protocols and report back to him.

So far Chan has yet to respond. “The Council is following up on Speaker Johnson’s requests to the NYPD at the hearing and will continue to work with the NYPD until his questions are answered,” a Council spokesperson said.

  • ortcutt

    Isn’t this on the DA, not the NYPD? It’s up to the DA to decide to charge or not. Whether to arrest or not is irrelevant.

    The jury is the ultimate factfinder. If the suspect won’t admit the offense, and there aren’t eyewitnesses, they can still convict, if they are convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. Let me imagine how the questioning would go “Was your truck stolen at any time on the day in question?” “Did you loan it to anyone else to drive?” “Can you account for your whereabouts at the time in question?”

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Let me imagine how the questioning would go.”

    The defendant would refuse to take the stand.

    What the city could do is use the money it would have used in criminal case for a civil case, seeking not only to take all the money those who leave the scene might have, but also getting an agreement (similar to an order of protection) to leave the state of New York and never return for any reason.

    “Imagine a scenario where all the circumstances are identical except the weapon. ‘If someone had a gun and shot outside the window of his car.'”

    Well, there is Florida. “I felt threatened and thought he might have a gun.” OK, the legislature has tied our hands with a low the eliminates the objective standard for self defense, so you won’t be charged.

  • ortcutt

    Sure. You’d have to build a different case if they refused to take the stand, maybe with cell phone tower information. It just sounds like hit-and-run is a low priority for the DA and they won’t charge unless it’s an easy case.

  • jr195

    I agree this case and the NYPD in general are disgusting, but this story does not state the facts of the investigation correctly.

    The first photo caption says “Police identified Joseph Alrick’s white GMC SUV as the vehicle involved in a hit-and-run,” but if you read the attached report (from the detective’s perspective):

    The video in my opinion was inconclusive. lt depicted a similar vehicle however the plate was not readable. The victim can not make an identification and there are no known eyewitness accounts of the incident, which include a description of the driver or the plate of the vehicle.

    ….there is no PC against the registered owner of the vehicle. In order for that to occur, the driver of the vehicle would have to admit to such. Or there would need to be some other witness to state and identify the driver….

    It seems the crucial detail here is not who was driving Alrick’s car, but whether it was actually his car at the scene. There appears to be no identifying evidence that either he or his car were at the scene. So there is a possibility at least that Alrick is innocent, and therefore no probable cause for his arrest.

    We insist that the criminal justice system considers all the details, and so must any journalism challenging it; this is just sloppy reporting.

  • SteveVaccaro

    As I’ve heard Naparstek quip, “I thought this was the fun part of being a cop”–questioning a person who is obviously lying, giving them lots of rope to hang themselves, and then hanging them. The detective here did a decent job of getting the vehicle owner to make some admissions that can probably be disproven. It will be interesting, for example, to see if the owner really is a “pastor” who “never lies.” The one thing the cop should have done was go and inspect the car for damage.

    In prosecuting the civil case, I am going to use all the admissions made to the police to demonstrate the owner is lying.

  • Tooscrapps

    I’m confused by this then:

    “Using a sophisticated network of cameras known as the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, or LMSI, police had positively identified the perpetrator’s license plate and vehicle, tracking its movements from the crash site to 42nd Street, over to the FDR Drive and south to the Brooklyn Bridge.”

    Was Alrick’s the only make and model to be photographed leaving the crash site at the time? If so, seems like probably cause to arrest. The driver is welcome to present the alternate theory that it was another similar SUV that was involved in the crash and somehow escaped the cameras.

  • If you read the full case material Vaccaro presented to the City Council, you’ll see that officer Sirignano, who compiled the camera evidence for Kolenda, expressed no doubt about the vehicle at the crash scene matching Alrick’s vehicle, and tracked the path of the vehicle from Third Avenue to 42nd Street, the FDR Drive, and finally over the Brooklyn Bridge. As you can see in the pictures, even Midtown streets are not that crowded before 6 a.m. How many white GMC SUVs should we presume were likely to be at Third Avenue and 42nd Street at the exact time of this crash?

    Kolenda also caught Alrick lying to him. Alrick said he took the FDR Drive straight from Upper Manhattan to the Brooklyn Bridge, but the cameras clearly captured his plate on Midtown Manhattan surface streets that morning, before the vehicle went to the FDR and over the bridge.

    So yes, the evidence available to the public may not, on its own, be enough to convict Alrick at trial. But does it constitute convincing proof that his vehicle was the one involved in this crash, and thus probable cause for arrest? I think so.

  • Canonchet

    Key details: 1) “NYPD’s public information office did not respond to a request to interview Elizabeth Moehle about the department’s policy on filing hit-and-run charges; 2) Pedestrian victim of hit-and-run had to file FOIA request to get NYPP police report about HER OWN CASE – the’ investigation’ into driver, who unsurprisingly denied culpability, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The sad truth behind failure of “Vision Zero” – zero accountablity, zero transparency.

  • Larry Littlefield

    If nothing else, if the criminal burden of proof is too high, the city should be enabling and funding civil cases, which have a lower burden of proof. Not thwarting them.

  • jr195

    We obviously don’t have all the details here, but I think the police and DAs have to meet a higher standard than “should we presume were likely.” In other words, as obvious as it seems that it was this guy, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to retort “what if it was a different white GMC SUV?” For better or worse, this is what innocent before proven guilty gets us.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Right. It’s frustrating to see someone whom the preponderance of evidences says is a terrible person who did a terrible thing get off scott free because he was smart enough to leave someone to die in the street rather than stopping to help her.

    But if the NYPD is going to start arresting people they don’t have the evidence to convict of something, I wouldn’t bet on hit and run drivers being the ones arrested.

  • Joe R.

    Is it just me, or are motorists using excuses which remind me of the ones kids use when their hand is caught in the cookie jar?

    “I didn’t see them.”
    “I didn’t realize I hit someone.”
    “It wasn’t me.”
    “I lost control of the car.”
    “The other driver made me do it.”

  • Daphna

    Why have cameras everywhere if the information they enable police to undercover (vehicle license plate and ownership) is considered insufficient to bring any charges due to “lack of legal grounds” ?

    If someone accuses somewhere else of hitting them, the police will arrest with no evidence whatsoever (no witness, no police investigation, no evidence) except someone’s claim. Why is there such a completely different threshold when it come to violence committed by motor vehicle drivers?

  • com63

    Hit and runs should be part of NYPD CompSTAT tracking and precincts should be accountable for bringing the rate of these crimes down and making arrests. It should apply to both injury collisions and property damage.

  • You Know!

    Easy to make a start on dealing with this NONSENSE. Their vehicles get impounded ( due to a criminal investigation)until they decide to confess or give up the the person that was driving.

  • Andrew

    Perhaps my favorite: “The pedestrian was DUI.”

  • Andrew

    Why is there such a completely different threshold when it come to violence committed by motor vehicle drivers?

    Some years ago, when a driver made a turn without yielding while I was legally in the crosswalk, I tapped on his car to get the driver’s attention.

    A police officer arrived(!) and, following a conversation with the motorist at which I was not welcome, examined the car carefully, fully prepared to arrest me if she found even the slightest scratch or dent. But she insisted that she could take no action whatsoever against the motorist because she hadn’t personally witnessed his infraction.

    To the NYPD, violence by a motorist against another person is less worthy of investigation or penalty than “violence” by a pedestrian against an inanimate object.

  • Rex Rocket

    But my car was hacked! I’m lucky I got it back from the hackers.

  • Rex Rocket

    Because cameras are used primarily as a deterrent, an emblem of our police state. We are always watching you.

  • tomwest

    “The defendant would refuse to take the stand.”
    Wait, that’s allowed??? Weird!

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