Manhattan DA Drops Charges Against Reckless Driver Who Totaled Luxury Car
12:01 AM EDT on March 23, 2021
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office dropped all charges against a notoriously reckless car buff who crashed his nearly million-dollar car last year while allegedly high on drugs — a decision that some legal experts say makes no sense and further diminishes the seriousness of traffic violence.
Police had said at the time that the driver, 33-year-old Benjamin Chen, was high when he slammed his blue 2014 Gemballa Mirage GT into a parked car on 11th Avenue near W. 47th Street on April 7, 2020 — sending it crashing into a bike lane, multiple videos taken from the scene shows. Onlookers stand on the sidewalk dumbfounded as the driver speeds off.
Chen, who reportedly has a luxury car collection and has gotten into several high-speed crashes before, then sped off with parts of his Porsche flying off before plowing into three other parked cars, according to the New York Post. Cops cuffed Chen a few bocks away at W. 44th Street, and charged him with reckless driving and operating a motor vehicle while impaired by drugs, the paper reported.
But last Monday, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance let Chen entirely off the hook and dropped all charges against him, in a shocking move first reported by Road and Track.
"The People are moving to dismiss this matter because the case cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt," the car-focused site quoted the DA's office (which refused to answer any of Streetsblog’s questions about the case, claiming the paperwork is “sealed”). A spokesperson for the NYPD referred Streetsblog to the DA’s office.
But some safe-streets advocates and attorneys say it’s not surprising that Vance, who announced this month he will not seek reelection, would fail to hold accountable reckless drivers like Chen — a pattern for which he has come under fire in the past.
“It looks very odd. What the driver did obviously posed great risk of harm and death to anyone near him, thankfully no one was," said attorney Steve Vaccaro, who represents victims of collisions.
Vance declined to press criminal charges against the cab driver who hit and killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock, who was walking in the crosswalk with his father on the Upper West Side in 2014; later that year, Vance agreed to a plea arrangement so that an unlicensed driver who fatally struck a senior as she crossed the street with the right of way only had to pay a $400 fine; and in 2016, he dropped a right-of-way violation against a truck driver who killed a senior on the Upper East Side two years earlier.
And more recently, prosecutors never arrested the truck driver who killed 20-year-old Robyn Hightman in 2019; and a few months before that, Vance charged the hit-and-run driver who killed 72-year-old Chaim Joseph in February, 2019 with only failure to yield and failure to exercise due care — low-level misdemeanor charges.
“The idea that someone would get a pass with this sort of activity just because they didn't happen to hit anyone is deeply troubling," said Vaccaro.
Another attorney who represents victims of traffic violence said it's possible that prosecutors had a hard time proving Chen was driving under the influence, and that often all it takes is a good, expensive lawyer to break down the DA's case and get a client off the hook.
"At the end of the day, he's very rich and has a good lawyer," said Daniel Flanzig.
An attempt to reach the lawyer on the case was unsuccessful.
But another attorney offered another theory to the DA's decision, and says it's likely less sinister than it is just a flaw of the current legal system.
Public defender Shane Ferro wrote in her online newsletter that the dismissal is likely a result of Vance's office being unable to prove that Chen was high at the time, and that he was actually the one driving — despite videos of him from that same day, and his prior crashes. The video shows a New York State trooper pull over Chen, who steps out of his banged up luxury auto and onto a traffic median as he and several officer talk casually. The video ends as Chen retrieves something from his car.
"It’s harder than you think to legally prove someone was driving," Ferro wrote in her e-mail chain. "Either an officer has to see you behind the wheel with the keys in the ignition, another person has to see you driving and be willing to testify, or the driver has to admit to driving. Another element of a DUI is obviously being intoxicated. A Breathalyzer test is a cheap, fast, and legally well-accepted way of proving that someone is under the influence of alcohol. But for drugs, you need a blood test. For blood, the cops have to take you to the hospital. The drug still has to be in your system by the time they take that blood. They have to be testing for the right kind of drug. There’s a whole chain of custody issue with who took that blood and where it went and who tested it and how everyone can be sure that those results are from that person who was arrested for the bumper cars in Hells Kitchen."
The more likely outcome of such a crash that fortuitously caused in no injuries would have been a required drug program and license suspension, Ferro wrote, since so rarely do misdemeanor charges like the ones Chen was charged with ever result in jail time.
"If I got this case as it is described, I’d tell the guy he was probably looking at doing a mandated drug program, losing his license for a little while, and paying a fine. I’d also tell him from day one that there was a good chance that his case would be outright dismissed because the prosecution would be unable to prove their case, even with videos of him doing it all over YouTube," she wrote. "Someone definitely could have been killed. There’s a separate conversation to have about how the criminal law treats driving offenses with kid gloves (even when people do die!), but that’s tangential to what did happen, which is the guy got charged with an extremely hard to prove misdemeanor."
Another potential cause for the dismissal, she wrote, is the state's new discovery laws that went into effect last year, and which have made it more difficult for prosecutors by requiring new documents that weren't previously required as part of the case.
"There are two major reasons this case was headed for dismissal from the start: first, they charged him with driving under the influence of drugs, not alcohol, and second, the government is still absolutely unable to handle the new discovery laws that went into effect in 2020," Ferro wrote.
The Brooklyn District Attorney last year similarly botched a traffic violence case — one in which a victim actually died — because of the new discovery laws. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez admitted that his office failed to follow the new criminal justice reforms that had just gone into effect, leading prosecutors to drop the case against a driver for killing 85-year-old Stella Clinton in March, 2019.
“The assistant district attorney thought he had additional time to prosecute the case in January [but] time had lapsed. It was unfortunate. It was a mistake on the part of this office. I’m not making excuses for it,” Gonzalez said under questioning from Streetsblog at the time.
But one safe-streets advocate says regardless of all the hypothetical reasons why Vance let the driver off the hook, law enforcements failure to hold a notorious speeder accountable for his very public actions just shows why it's so crucial that crash investigations are transferred from the NYPD to DOT. The de Blasio administration, including NYPD and DOT, are opposed.
"There was plenty of footage of the driver, and numerous police officers on the scene. There were multiple crimes being committed during his escapade. It raises serious questions about the officers who were there, did they speak to any of the passerby, did they speak to any of the people who might have witnessed the entire thing?" said Transportation Alternatives Deputy Director Marco Conner DiAquoi. "If we needed any reminder that we need to comprehensively overhaul our crash investigation, this crash response by the NYPD and DA is it. This shows the City Council must vote ASAP to pass the bill to expand crash investigation authority to DOT."
That vote is expected on Thursday.
Julianne Cuba joined Streetsblog in February, 2019, after three years covering local news and politics at The Brooklyn Paper. There, she also covered the notoriously reckless private carting industry and hit-and-runs. A 2015 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism Master’s Program, she lives in Brooklyn. Julianne is on Twitter at @julcuba. Email Julianne at firstname.lastname@example.org
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