NYC District Attorneys Failing to Seek Justice for Crash Victims, TransAlt Finds

Report says D.A.s must use prominent position and prosecutorial discretion to help change NYC’s culture of dangerous driving


As elected officials with extensive prosecutorial discretion and a prominent position, New York City’s district attorneys could establish a powerful deterrent against dangerous driving and change the culture on our streets. Unfortunately, the City’s D.A.s rarely bring charges after collisions caused by reckless, negligent and careless behavior, according to Transportation Alternatives’ new report Justice Denied: New York City’s District Attorneys Plead Out of Vision Zero.

“The public’s elected prosecutors are routinely dodging their responsibility to seek justice for traffic victims, which leaves tens of thousands without a day in court and allows dangerous driving to continue unabated,” said Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives. “In a city where lawless driving kills or injures more than 25,000 people every year, we can only reach Vision Zero if all of our district attorneys embrace their prosecutorial discretion in traffic violence cases and send a strong message that the City will no longer accept negligent and reckless behavior at the wheel.”

After consulting with all five D.A.s’ offices over the course of six months, TransAlt researchers found that at least 10,000 motorists were prosecuted for driving while intoxicated in the past year, while fewer than 40 drivers were prosecuted for failing to yield to a pedestrian or bicyclist – even though failure to yield led to more than six times as many crashes as DWI. The City’s new Right of Way Law (Section 19-190) was used in only 3% of the 1,157 cases where it could have been applied.

So far this year, about 4,000 New Yorkers have been killed or injured in hit-and-run crashes, but less than 1% of the drivers involved have been prosecuted. Only 50 of those cases have been investigated by the NYPD's Collision Investigation Squad (CIS) in 2015, leading to the arrest of 28 drivers -- with an unknown but smaller number ultimately charged with a crime. The report recommends that district attorneys should allow hit-and-run victims to report incidents directly to prosecutors’ offices. D.A.s should also publicly push for additional resources to expand the CIS, and aggressively apply a City law allowing for civil fines against hit-and-run drivers.

The report found a significant disparity in how D.A.s view their role in adjudicating traffic crashes. In Brooklyn, there are promising efforts to treat victims with fairness through institutional commitments to Vision Zero like D.A. Ken Thompson’s Driver Accountability Task Force. In Manhattan, D.A. Cyrus Vance secured a homicide conviction against the driver who killed Jean Chambers, a rare type of conviction given the absence of key aggravating factors.

By contrast, in Staten Island, where the number of pedestrian fatalities has remained unchanged for 30 years, there has been little recognition that New Yorkers killed and injured by careless drivers are the purview of the D.A.'s office at all.

Key Findings

  • District attorneys are bringing homicide charges against less than 7% of drivers who cause fatal crashes in New York City. In less than 2% of such crashes did D.A.s bring charges against drivers who were not intoxicated, fleeing the police or intentionally attacking the victim.
  • In the past year, at least 10,000 drivers were prosecuted for drunk driving, even though alcohol was a factor in 897 crashes where people were killed or injured. Fewer than 40 drivers were prosecuted for failing to yield the right of way to a pedestrian or bicyclist, which caused 5,966 crashes where people were killed or injured.
  • Motorists caused 25,483 fatal or injurious crashes in 2014 as a direct result of lawless driving. 70% of pedestrian fatalities are caused by dangerous driver behavior, but the four Vision Zero laws passed by the New York City Council and State Legislature to aid district attorneys have only been used 46 times in two years.
  • None of New York City’s district attorneys are tracking or documenting cases where people are killed by lawless driving. TransAlt asked D.A.s to identify the number of crashes they prosecuted involving a fatality. Not a single office responded with this data.
  • District attorneys are not using the full extent of their powers. For example, prosecutors have brought charges against less than 1% of drivers involved in 4,000 fatal and injury hit-and-run crashes in 2015. D.A.s could allow victims to report incidents directly to their offices, and publicly push for more resources to expand the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad (CIS).

Recommendations

D.A.s must demonstrate prosecutorial leadership and commitment to traffic safety by:

  • Taking a vocal public stance on reckless and dangerous driving
  • Leading legislative efforts that will allow for more prosecutions of dangerous drivers
  • Supporting proactive interagency coordination between prosecutors, police and other stakeholders
  • Giving staff comprehensive training on Vision Zero
  • Providing comprehensive services for all crash victims
  • Offering alternatives to incarceration and restorative justice initiatives
  • Supporting a Vehicular Crimes Unit