Spring 2004, p.2

Provocateur: "The victims are truly the innocent and the random."

New York law makes it hard to prosecute and convict drivers who kill while sober.

In April, T.A. spoke with veteran Brooklyn prosecutor Maureen McCormick, head of the Vehicular Crimes Bureau at the Brooklyn District Attorneyís office. McCormick graduated from St. Johnís Law School and has spent the last 17 years working to hold killer drivers accountable for their crimes.

T.A. has long admired McCormick for her untiring efforts to hold killer drivers to account and educate the public about the consequences of speeding and dangerous driving. Among McCormickís accomplishments, she won a second-degree murder conviction of Brooklyn driver Jon Paul Lazartes, age 21, who killed two other motorists while driving at 100 mph on the Belt Parkway on January 16, 2000. Lazartes was sentenced to 25 years to life for his ďdepraved indifferenceĒ to human life. He is only the second sober driver convicted of murder in New York State history.

T.A.: Maureen, were you surprised when the Daily News revealed last year that fewer than one in five killer drivers is charged criminally even though many of those drivers were disobeying traffic rules when they killed?
No, I was not surprised by that statistic. Itís wrong and frustrating. My victimsí families have educated me that there is no one way to grieve, but they all feel it is extraordinarily important that someone be held accountable for their loved onesí death.

Letís say a mom is walking hand in hand with her young son across the street. They are coming back from a nice morning in the park, itís broad daylight, they are in the crosswalk and have the walk signal. Suddenly, a motorist runs the red light and kills them both. The motorist pulls over and is found to be sober. Would that motorist be charged with a crime?
Limited to those facts, that motorist would be summonsed for running a red light. A criminal prosecution requires showing that the motorist ran the red light because of more than carelessness or inadvertence. The driverís behavior at the time of running the light is usually the only way to prove the driverís state of mind. The state of a personís mind is a difficult thing to prove. They donít generally yell out ďIím going through this light on purpose.Ē

Letís say this killer motorist had a revoked driverís license. Would that make a difference?
Under the governorís proposed legislation it would, but sadly under the current laws it would not. Currently, the motorist would be summonsed for the red light violation and face a misdemeanor charge for aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. These charges might result in fines where no death or injury occurred. In Brooklyn, District Attorney Hynes seeks to see that killer motorists serve at least some jail time. However, judges are not bound by the D.A.ís recommendations.

So, if a sober driver kills a cyclist or walker and then stops and pulls over after killing them, itís unlikely that the driver will serve jail time?
When D.A.ís canít show that the driverís acts were more than careless or inadvertent, and criminal assault or manslaughter cannot be charged, jail time is unlikely. However, in Brooklyn, more sober drivers are charged with driving assaults and homicides in cases than drunk or drugged ones. The jail time for these sober drivers depends on the driverís behavior and record. In general, defendants in sober driving cases who do not rise to the criminal level of ďdepraved indifference to human lifeĒ will receive lesser jail sentences than drunk or drugged drivers.

Why is that?
Because of the way laws are written and interpreted, and because of societal attitudes, it is easier to convict deadly drivers who are drunk or drugged. The average New Yorker has a hard time identifying with a guy who smokes crack or shoots up before getting behind the wheel. But jurors may identify with speeders or red light runners who kill someone.

Do you think that the public views speeding, red light running and aggressive driving as it did drunk driving 10 to 20 years ago?
When I started, jail time for killing someone while drunk was rare. Then Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and lots of public education changed attitudes towards drunk driving. Now, consciousness raising about speed and red light running is starting to occur. Judges are much less likely to dismiss charges against sober, killer drivers than they were ten years ago. But many police officers, judges and prosecutors donít consider this ďreal crimeĒ until their first vehicular crime case. Then, they are awestruck by the devastation wrought on the family. They learn first hand that the victims are truly the innocent and the random.

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