DA Cy Vance: Most Manhattan Traffic Deaths Aren’t Crimes

Sofia Russo, whose daughter Ariel was killed by a Manhattan driver, is swarmed by reporters after asking Manhattan DA Cy Vance to meet with the families of crash victims. Photo: Brad Aaron
Sofia Russo, whose daughter Ariel was killed by a Manhattan driver, is swarmed by reporters after she asked District Attorney Cy Vance to meet with families of crash victims. Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson has agreed to work with Families For Safe Streets to hold drivers accountable for killing pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: Brad Aaron

All Cy Vance wanted to do was talk computer crime at the Yale Club, but Sofia Russo, who lost her daughter to traffic violence, wouldn’t let him stick to the script.

At a Crain’s breakfast in Midtown today, the Manhattan district attorney assured the capacity crowd that his office is going after gangs, targeting terrorists, and “keeping New York safe for business.” He also revealed that in five years he secured indictments in just 190 vehicular cases — including crashes involving drunk driving — which means he has allowed thousands of motorists to go unpenalized for injuring and killing people in traffic.

It’s pretty well established that Vance is serious about “cybercrime.” The Internet, Vance said this morning, is “our modern crime scene,” with fraud and other nefarious activity at “epidemic levels,” committed by perpetrators who “operate with impunity.” Vance touted a new lab dedicated to computer crimes, as well as a prosecutor training program. There are 85 assistant district attorneys assigned to computer-based crime in Vance’s office, he said, 15 of them full-time.

“Please consider this, those of you who are in the business world, my direct appeal,” said Vance. “If you see cybercrime, report it to us. Call me, call the head of our investigation division … and we will respond to you promptly.”

Though he promised to make traffic justice a priority when he first ran for office in 2009, Vance hasn’t been as committed to holding motorists accountable for causing physical harm to pedestrians and cyclists. His prepared remarks didn’t touch on the thousands of people killed and injured by reckless Manhattan drivers on his watch — victims whose experiences with the DA’s office have often been frustrating. Traffic violence didn’t come up this morning until moderator Erik Engquist, Crain’s assistant managing editor, asked him the following:

“It’s basically legal in New York City, with the exception of the $250 fine you get, to turn into a crosswalk and run over pedestrians — kill them, maim them, mutilate them — if you stop, get out, express sympathy, and pay your $250 fine for failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. During your campaign in 2009 you said that that was wrong, that if you kill a person it was a crime, and this ‘rule of two’ … that you have to be doing something else at the same time to justify a conviction, like be drunk for instance, should not apply. In fact, doesn’t it still apply? Have you really kept to that?”

Here was Vance’s response, edited for gaps in our audio:

“The rule of two is really not our deciding point. [Cases are based on] whether or not we have conduct that is criminal. Not negligent, but criminal … gross recklessness and intentional conduct. What I can say is it is an enormous tragedy, it goes without saying, for anybody to be involved in an accident, whether it’s a fatal accident or an accident with injury. And … family members are understandably filled with grief, and I appreciate that. I also appreciate that my job as district attorney is to prosecute cases that are criminal, and if I do other than that then I think I would be doing the system a disservice. I can tell you, Eric, that since taking office I have issued 190 indictments in vehicular cases, 37 of those for vehicular assault, and several for vehicular homicide. So what I want you to understand is that we have in fact taken criminal action against a significant number of [unintelligible] in these cases, and we continue to work with the legislature as they evaluate whether the law should be changed … But it’s not something that I take lightly, or that is not important to me.”

As Engquist started to ask his next question, Russo, whose 4-year-old daughter Ariel was killed by an unlicensed teen driver during a police chase, stood from her seat in the audience. While Engquist tried to shout her down, then tried to talk over her, Russo asked Vance if he would meet with Families For Safe Streets.

Vance didn’t address Russo, but when Engquist asked him about Ariel’s case — how Franklin Reyes, her alleged killer, who was later charged for dragging a police officer during a traffic stop, was allowed back behind the wheel — Vance became agitated, and indicated that a judge released Reyes pending trial. (Reyes, who was charged with manslaughter, fits the profile of motorists prosecuted by Vance, since the crash allegedly involved several aggravating factors.)

Engquist then pointed out that Vance has filed homicide charges in a relative handful of fatal crashes, and asked what factors prevented him from doing more.

“Because we do not believe after an investigation that the facts prove a crime,” Vance replied. Without mentioning names, Vance cited the case of Faysal Himon, the cab driver who during an admitted fit of road rage accelerated onto a Midtown sidewalk, striking a cyclist and tourist Sian Green, whose leg had to be amputated. Vance filed no charges.

“The taxi driver hit the accelerator for whatever reason,” he said. Based on witness interviews, video evidence, and EDR data, Vance said, “It was a tragedy, but it was not a crime.”

While he has “every empathy” for people who have lost family members, Vance said, “my job really is to make sure that the cases we take to court as crimes we believe are crimes, and we believe we can prove them.”

A few points here. Vance didn’t mention the Right of Way Law, a new tool that allows police and prosecutors to bring misdemeanor charges against drivers who strike a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. If Vance is using the law as intended, you’d think he would be eager to take credit for it. And if Vance is working with Albany to strengthen weak vehicular crime statutes, like he said, this is big news.

Finally, drivers kill or injure thousands of pedestrians and cyclists in Manhattan annually — approximately 10 victims every day. Studies have shown that motorists are culpable in most of those cases. If Vance has gotten indictments for just 190 crashes in five years, people who walk and bike in Manhattan essentially have no protection under the law.

Russo was mobbed by reporters after Vance left the podium. Streetsblog has learned that Vance’s chief of staff gave her a business card and agreed to a meeting.

We’re curious to see if Vance takes Russo up on her request and joins Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson in agreeing to work with Families For Safe Streets to hold deadly drivers accountable.