Maureen McCormick: Vehicular Crime Fighter

Thanks to Dick Wolf's 'Law and Order' Order’ empire, we all know that, “In the Criminal Justice System, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the District Attorneys who prosecute the offenders.” This is as true in a traffic crash as it is in a murder. Few know that as well as Maureen McCormick. Before taking a job as Chief of Vehicular Crimes in the Nassau County District Attorney’s office, she headed the Kings County Vehicular Crimes Bureau for 14 years. There, she saw just how unforgiving New York City streets could be. Maureen took some time away from fighting for traffic justice to sit down with Reclaim and talk about crash investigations, the fight for safer streets and why she hates her job.

Reclaim: From one person who ended up in this niche to another, how did you end up involved in traffic crashes? What made you decide to become a vehicular crimes prosecutor?

I certainly never had any intention of becoming a vehicular crimes prosecutor. I became an Assistant District Attorney right out of law school. After a few years, I got assigned to vehicular crimes. Immediately I felt like I could actually impact things. That’s why I’m still at it. It’s hard to give up once you’re committed to changing things. Everyone grows up with a notion of what the criminal justice system should be. It doesn’t necessarily live up to its billing all the time, so I try to change it from the inside out. That said, I absolutely hate my job, but I believe very strongly in what I do. It is a job that is steeped in other people’s pain. Vehicular crimes are so random, and so everyday. I am very conscious that I could easily be on the other side of my desk, having the conversation when it’s too late. It is hard to give up once you get hooked into thinking you’re doing the right thing, though. What am I going to do instead? Make money?

You started out in a more traditional role in the D.A.’s office: Is prosecuting a traffic crash different than prosecuting other types of crime?
I carry these cases with me. Not that they’re less serious, but when I prosecuted intentional homicides in Brooklyn, I don’t think I had a single case that involved defendants or victims who were not in high-risk lifestyles—gangs or drug dealing— and therefore the victim’s family members had a notion that there might be a shorter lifespan for that victim. Whereas vehicular crimes, it’s exactly the opposite. There’s no notice whatsoever. People go out for milk, and they just never come back.

Often traffic crashes aren’t looked at as serious crime. What’s the disparity there?
We’re in a bad spot, but we’ve never been in a good spot with vehicular crimes because we’re already fighting a culture that insists, “Oh, it’s just an accident.” In addition, there are people that I call murder snobs. There are murder snobs in prosecutor’s offices, there are murder snobs in law enforcement, and there are murder snobs on the bench. They treat these as though they’re lesser crimes. I always think these murder snobs should spend a day at my desk, talking to victim’s families. You could not walk away from my desk and say these are lesser crimes.

There is a cultural problem in society about vehicular crimes, and there is a cultural problem within law enforcement about them. The officer responding to a crash may not see it as a potential crime. The ideal situation would be that the patrol cops are trained that a crash is a crime scene until there are enough witnesses, and enough indication, to declare that it’s not. But it all begins with whether the guys showing up are recognizing that this is a potential crime in the first place.

Talking with other experts, we’ve heard about two different investigative scenarios, one involving a highly trained Accident Investigation Squad and the other regular officers. Can you tell us more about that?
The Accident Investigation Squad is a citywide unit. They’re part of the NYPD’s Highway Patrol. They have separate squads in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. The Patrol Guide says AIS is supposed to respond to “serious physical injury / likely to die cases.” That means the hospital has to have said, “You’re likely to die” or “You’re dead” for the Accident Investigation Squad to come out, to preserve the scene and do that investigation. Otherwise, it’s regular officers from the local precinct.

Are there problems with that division?
Yes. And I’ve been talking about it for years. If someone has lost both their legs, but they’re not going to die, how can you say that doesn’t justify an investigation? There is every reason to afford that victim the same level of investigation as a person who’s died. On many occasions, the victim doesn’t actually survive, and now you don’t have any of the background crime scene information that’s essential to investigating the case.

So if a crash victim doesn’t die, but is severely injured, there is no AIS investigation? What do you use to prosecute then?
The MV-104 crash report, which is always a problem. On that form, you have the response of untrained police officers that get initial information that may change in the course of an investigation. It’s not uncommon to have almost an entirely different version of events from the MV-104 to the results of the final investigation. Everybody watches CSI at this point and nothing is that simple.

Trying to develop a case from an MV-104 is a nightmare. Your case is entirely contingent on witness statements, because you have none of the forensic evidence from AIS. I refer to these as Humpty Dumpty cases: where you have to put Humpty Dumpty back together again from a million little pieces. You’re never going to do that to the degree of certainty you would want. For the victims, for the defendants, for anybody, you’d like to be able to have certainty about how it happened.

Weak evidence factors into a prosecutor’s ability to bring a criminal charge, and the evidence is weaker if you don’t have the forensic AIS investigation. It doesn’t always stop you, it just makes it harder.

Are there other factors hampering crash investigations?
On any given weekend night, one AIS detective can be covering the entire city. Staffing has gone down at least 20 or 25 percent since September 11th. In hard numbers, if I’m not mistaken, they are down to about 19 detectives. With that number of resources, staffing the squad is a problem. You’d be hard-pressed to find citizens of the city objecting to the priority that’s put on terrorism, but that doesn’t make the other offenses less offensive. The number of people who perish on New York City roads really warrants there being a specialized unit and enough guys to actually do the work. There needs to be resources that are attributed to the Accident Investigation Squad. You can’t do a job without resources and everybody understands the tight economy and the focus on terrorism but the balancing act has to balance a little better.

Is there anything else you want to share with the police, policy makers and elected officials who read Reclaim?
I’m a mother. For me, it’s all about the families. One of the most important things is good communication with the victim’s family. It’s a tough thing because no two families grieve the same way. There has to be a frank conversation, and a frank conversation is not always a welcome conversation.

The hardest conversations I’ve ever had are when you have to tell a victim’s family, “Yes, your son is gone. But there is no crime I can charge this guy with, even though he killed your son. And there is no question that he killed your son.”

That is the worst. It is the worst.