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Several Manhattan DA Hopefuls Miss Mark on the Crisis of Reckless Driving

12:01 AM EST on December 4, 2020

A screenshot of the Chelsea/Hell’s Kitchen Democrats forum.

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Several Manhattan district attorney candidates this week showed that they are out of step with efforts to hold reckless drivers accountable for the vehicle violence that each year kills or maims hundreds of New Yorkers.

At a virtual forum held on Dec. 1 by the Chelsea Reform Democrats/Hell's Kitchen Democrats, one candidate rejected the idea of driver culpability, while another questioned the fairness of reckless driving prosecutions and a third expressed unfamiliarity with legislation, such as that advanced by the current DA Cy Vance, that seeks to expand sanctions on such drivers. 

One candidate even went so far as to call the crash that took the life of cyclist Dan Hanegby an "accident."

Of course, that candidate, Liz Crotty, is a principal in the law firm that defended the bus driver, Dave Lewis, in the 2017 crash. Lewis was found guilty in that case, partly on evidence that showed he disregarded the danger when he sped past Hanegby rather than simply slowing down to allow the cyclist to continue unimpeded by Lewis's 6,000-pound Coach USA bus.

“It was an accident,” Crotty said of the case. "I think that criminalizing accidents is the wrong thing to do." (Lewis was convicted of a low-level charge, but is appealing on the grounds that the city's failure to yield law is unconstitutional.) “It was not intentional but, under Vision Zero, this was a test case.”

Dan Hanegby
Dan Hanegby

The Chelsea Reform Democrats/Hell’s Kitchen Democrats event showcased Crotty and eight others who’d like to succeed Vance in the 2021 electon: Chief Deputy Attorney General Alvin Bragg, longtime ADA Diana Florence, crusading attorney Tahanie Aboushie, criminal-justice reformer Lucy Lang, de-carceration proponent Janos Marton,  public defender Eliza Orlins, Assembly Member Dan Quart, and  Tali Farhadian Weinstein, the former general counsel for Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez. They mostly voiced progressive takes on criminal-justice issues. But when it came to vehicle violence, their positions often reflected those of the defense bar and of the police — which often decline to press any charges and reflexively blame pedestrians and cyclists for the crashes that kill them

The question of prosecution is an important one. Last year, drivers killed 30 pedestrians and cyclists in Manhattan and injured 3,519, according to city stats — yet the Manhattan DA brought only 15 prosecutions, including throwing the book at one reckless cyclist who killed a 67-year-old woman. (On Thursday, Vance announced the guilty plea for vehicular manslaughter of Jessenia Farado, a 38-year-old woman who killed a grandfather and injured two others in two incidents on the Upper West Side last year. Farado had "a history of reckless conduct off the road," Vance said in a statement.)

For Steve Vaccaro, a personal-injury attorney who works on cases involving injured or killed cyclists, the forum demonstrated that many candidates aren’t attuned to the fact that the system “fails to address reckless drivers who kill, except in unusual cases” and that most sober drivers who kill get a complete pass from Vance and other DAs.

Crotty’s remarks, in particular, drew a sharp reaction from Marco Conner DiAquoi, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, who noted that "Hanegby's death was not an ‘unfortunate’ ‘accident,’ it was the direct and foreseeable result of a professional driver recklessly operating a multi-ton lethal vehicle next to a cyclist who did nothing wrong.” He noted that the driver had seen Hanegby and honked his horn — thus recognizing the limited space with no ability to pass safely (as otherwise required under state law). The driver ignored the danger; had he waited just a few seconds, Hanegby would still be alive.

“The lethal culture of reckless driving is kept alive when leaders and elected officials make excuses for such inexcusable acts,” Conner DiAquoia continued. “Recognizing the driver's culpability does not mean automatically calling for the harshest criminal penalty; it means that we start recognizing the tremendous responsibility of operating multi-ton bullets of steel on city that we can apply the necessary infrastructure treatments and appropriate equitable penalties to prevent others from losing their lives and being injured."

Crotty did not return a call seeking comment.

Orlins, a longtime Manhattan public defender, sought to balance the notion that the DA must prosecute crimes, but he or she need not prosecute every crime, even if it resulted in a death. She questioned the fatal-crash prosecution of a 19-year-old man she defended, painting a sympathetic portrait of the “kid” and blaming his victim who, she said, “stepped out between cars” in darkness. 

"We have a criminal legal system that benefits the rich and powerful and incarcerates far too many people, which I've seen firsthand in my decade as a public defender,” she told Streetsblog. “There’s no question that we need to do more to ensure New York City streets are safe for bikers and pedestrians, especially given the rise in motor vehicle violence and hate crimes. But in this particular case, justice was not going to be served by sending a teenager to prison. Just as the criminal-punishment bureaucracy is the wrong instrument for righting the wrongs of our economic, mental health, and social systems, it’s not generally the right tool for addressing our city’s failure to address pedestrian-safety issues."

A video still shows the moment when bus driver Dave Lewis passed too closely to cyclist Dan Hanegby, who had the right of way, killing him.
A video still shows the moment when bus driver Dave Lewis passed too closely to cyclist Dan Hanegby, who had the right of way, killing him.

But what about reckless drivers who are less sympathetic than a 19-year-old? The vast majority of them — such as the cab driver who in 2014 ran over and killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock, as he walked with his father in an Upper West Side crosswalk — aren’t prosecuted.

Some candidates just seemed underprepared. Lang, a former ADA who directs the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, offered sympathy for victims of vehicle violence, but couldn’t commit to proposed legislation upping consequences for reckless drivers because she hadn’t “reviewed” it. Even so, she said, “we need to be proactive in such cases because we are such a car-dependent city.” (It was unclear if she said that as a negative or a positive.)

One candidate sought to position himself as the most savvy on vehicle violence, both at the forum and in a subsequent statement to Streetsblog.

“Vehicular violence has taken 224 lives this year alone, but criminal prosecutions of drivers in New York City remain far and few,” Quart, who has introduced legislation on reckless driving, said in the statement. 

“For the last decade, Manhattan has had a district attorney unwilling to elevate the issue of traffic violence to the level it deserves,” he continued. ”Traffic deaths are preventable. Listening to some of my opponents, however, you wouldn’t know that we are fighting an epidemic of traffic violence enabled by car supremacy and a lack of accountability. As an Assembly member representing Midtown, this problem is personal to me. I’ve met with families who have had loved ones ripped away from them as a result of dangerous driving. As District Attorney, I will do more than offer my condolences and advocate for changes in the law; I will actually prosecute drivers who kill.”

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