Weak State Law Protects Unlicensed Drivers Who Kill

The unlicensed driver who hit and killed a 10-year-old boy was charged with a misdemeanor because of lax state law. Photo: WPIX
The unlicensed driver who hit and killed a 10-year-old boy was charged with a misdemeanor because of lax state law. Photo: WPIX

The unlicensed driver who hit and killed a 10-year-old boy riding his bike in Brooklyn on Saturday will spend no more than a month behind bars because of a lax state law that fails to adequately punish unlicensed drivers who kill — but more so because of a car culture that prioritizes driving over the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, experts say.

State law regarding driving without a license is lenient — and does not even set aside a higher penalty for unlicensed drivers who kill, said attorney Steve Vaccaro, who works exclusively in vehicular crimes.

“It’s part of our giant blindspot for the dangers of driving. It speaks to how we have forgotten how driving is a privilege and not a right,” said Vaccaro.

The call for higher penalties for unlicensed drivers comes days after police say Victor Mejia, 29, slammed into 10-year-old Dalerjon Shahobiddinov as the boy was riding his bike in the crosswalk on Foster Avenue at Seton Street in Kensington. Shahobiddinov was rushed to Maimonides Hospital, where he died — becoming the 24th biker killed on the streets of New York City this year.

Cops arrested Mejia for driving without a license, failure to yield and failure to exercise due care — misdemeanor charges that come with a maximum of 30 days in jail.

Mejia is getting off easy since this is his first offense for driving without a license (in fact, authorities say, Mejia had never even applied to get one). Not having that piece of plastic means that not only did Mejia not take a written test, he never had the required hours of supervised driving and never passed an official state road test before getting behind the wheel of his 2002 Ford SUV.

The law confounds lawyers like Vaccaro and other safe-street advocates because it fails to punish drivers without a valid license who kill any more than it does for just driving without a license.

“It’s clearly a big hole in the law that does not correspond with the dangers of unlicensed driving — clearly this was the case with (Mejia). He should not have been on the road and he was, and he knew he shouldn’t be on the road and he killed someone, maybe as a result of never having any training, never having to read a manual or take a test,” said StreetsPAC Executive Director Eric McClure. 

In fact, if Mejia actually had a license, and had it been suspended a total of 10 times, he could have been charged with a felony — regardless if his car even touched anyone or not.

Besides having 10 suspensions, drivers can also get slapped with the higher felony charge under three other scenarios: if they have three suspensions on three separate occasions in addition to driving under the influence, driving under a permanent revocation of the license, and driving with a conditional license and under the influence. 

But none of the scenarios includes hurting or killing another person — a mystery if lawmakers and law enforcement actually want to make streets safer and keep reckless drivers off the road, said Vaccaro.

“The court system and law environment does not recognize that bad driving produces crashes with injuries,” he said. “One incident should be equal to 10 incidents of driving with a suspended or not valid license where you didn’t hurt anyone.”

The outrage over Shahobiddinov’s death is similar to when Philip Monfoletto ran over 13-year-old Kevin Flores, killing him in Brooklyn in 2018. Monfoletto’s license had been suspended a total of nine times before that — just one shy of getting charged with a felony, for which the maximum sentence is four years in jail.

But because Monfoletto had nine, he was sentenced to 60 days in prison and three years’ probation after pleading guilty to the top charge in December, according to court records.

And even though he luckily did not kill anyone — yet — safe-street advocates were also baffled by how the city firefighter, Brauley De La Rosa, who had been arrested for driving recklessly with a suspended license was able to get right back on the road and continue to drive recklessly. (Answer: He paid the outstanding tickets that led to the suspended license.)

But clearly even the threat of jail time and not having a license is not enough to keep some recidivists off the road, which is why the Council needs to finally pass the Reckless Driver Accountability Act — which would impound the vehicles belonging to drivers who rack five or more speed camera violations in a single year, said Marco Conner of Transportation Alternatives.

“De La Rosa continues to drive recklessly while endangering school children and cyclists throughout our city, despite being ticketed, arrested and having his license suspended. De la Rosa belongs to the small minority of drivers for whom a slap on the wrist is insufficient. He needs help to become a safer driver, and if he refuses that help then he should not be allowed to operate a multi-ton vehicle on city streets,” said Conner.

Some state lawmakers want to close this nonsensical loophole by increasing the penalties for unlicensed drivers who kill. Under legislation proposed by Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris, drivers could face up to seven in prison if they kill someone while driving with a suspended license.

The higher penalties would only be applicable to drivers whose licenses are suspended because of prior driving infractions, like another crash where they were proven to be at fault, or speeding or going through a red light, not for merely failing to pay a parking ticket or child support, according to Gianaris’s office.

The distinction between punishing drivers who actively choose to get behind the wheel knowing they shouldn’t and others who may lose their license for non-driving infractions is the key to improving the current law and getting reckless drivers off the road, said Amy Cohen of Families For Safe Streets.

“It is horrific that drivers who lose their license because of previous dangerous driving choose to get behind the wheel anyway and then kill someone. This is not an accident. These reckless drivers need to be held accountable. If current laws do not permit that, then we need to change the law to do so,” said Cohen.

The Senate unanimously passed the Gianaris bill last April, but it now sits in the Assembly’s codes committee — which must pass it soon to make streets safer, said the lawmaker.

“Too many deaths and serious injuries occur at the hands of dangerous drivers. We need to prevent these needless tragedies by building safer streets and providing the tools to keep dangerous drivers off the road,” Gianaris said.

But codes committee chair, Brooklyn Assembly Member Joe Lentol, said some legislators were cautious to hike the penalties for unlicensed drivers since many undocumented immigrants are unable to get a license at all, making them yet another target for police and immigration authorities. 

But now that Gov. Cuomo signed into law the Green Light bill, which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license, Lentol said he and his colleagues are eager to revisit the legislation this year — despite previously telling the Post that the law wouldn’t be “fair” because “accidents happen.” 

“I believe this is a good bill that we need,” Lentol told Streetsblog on Tuesday. “We certainly want to ensure the safety of all pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. Other Assembly members, including myself, were concerned with the disproportionate impact that this bill would have on undocumented immigrants. Now that the law would apply more fairly to everyone, I look forward to taking a deeper dive into the bill next session.”