Home Vehicle Accidents N.Y. law shields drivers who kill pedestrians, cyclists

N.Y. law shields drivers who kill pedestrians, cyclists

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New York’s punishment for a driver who ran over and killed cyclist Aaron Padwee was a $75 fine and a lengthening of the license suspension he was already ignoring — a slap on the wrist in keeping with how the state punishes motorists accused in traffic deaths.

Padwee, 45, was bicycling through Queens in 2018 when another driver opened a car door into his path. Padwee hit the door and was thrown under a bread truck driven by Agustin Osorio-Torres, 36, at the intersection of 46th Ave. and 21st St. in Long Island City.

Osorio-Torres, who was waiting at a red light, hit the gas and ran over Padwee, killing him.

The state issued a total of $195 in fines for the death.

“My son’s death was considered a misdemeanor,” the cyclist’s father, Michael Padwee, 79, recalled bitterly.

Justice in this case was meted out not in the criminal courts, but in hearing rooms of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The woman who doored Padwee in the first place, Louise Bien-Aime, paid a $120 fine for opening a door unsafely into traffic. She was not criminally charged and denied wrongdoing.

Osorio-Torres, who had his driver’s license suspended in 2015 for not paying a ticket and had been driving around without a license ever since, pleaded guilty to aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, the only criminal charge he faced. He was ordered to pay a $75 fine. The state also extended Osorio-Torres’s license suspension — which he was ignoring anyway — for another six months.

Bein-Aime’s license was also suspended for six months, according to a disposition of the Department of Motor Vehicles hearing reviewed by the Daily News.

In a deposition filed in connection with an ongoing civil lawsuit over the crash, Osorio-Torres admitted seeing a bicycle fall behind the truck while at the red light, then hitting the gas. The suit alleges he ignored warnings from witnesses and a co-worker that the cyclist was under the truck. He also denied wrongdoing.

“He didn’t hear,” Michael Padwee said of Osorio-Torres. “Maybe if he did, Aaron could have lived.”

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Hundreds of times every year, motorists are suspected of causing deadly and near-fatal crashes in the city — but fewer than half are criminally charged and a much smaller percentage face felony cases, data acquired by The News show.

Preliminary state Department of Motor Vehicles data for 2021 show that 74,627 vehicular crashes in the city involving pedestrians, bicyclists and other motorists were reported to the NYPD. In those crashes, 276 people were killed and an additional 38,479 were injured.

The NYPD’s collision investigation squad probed the fatal crashes and found 110 of them — less than half — were criminal acts. Detectives made 70 arrests. Of those, 10 drivers faced charges of vehicular homicide, vehicular manslaughter and vehicular manslaughter in the second degree, which are punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The remaining 60 people busted were hit with low-level felonies or misdemeanor crimes such as leaving the scene of an accident, failing to yield to a pedestrian and reckless endangerment.

That means vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter charges were brought in 3.6% of the crashes investigated by the collision investigation squad last year.

The numbers weren’t much different in 2020, when 72,640 crashes reported to police caused 243 deaths and 33,549 injuries.

That year, during the height of the pandemic, 70 of the fatal wrecks were deemed criminal and 57 drivers were arrested — but only four were hit with counts of vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter.

The repercussions of killer drivers’ actions are rarely addressed by law enforcement and the courts, said Padwee, who buried his wife, Susan, 10 months after Aaron died. With her son dead, and no sense of justice in sight, she gave up her ongoing fight against chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and spinal stenosis.

“She just couldn’t take the whole thing anymore,” he said. “There’s very little justice out there for crash victims and their families. It just isn’t built into the system.”

On Feb. 9, a woman with a learner’s permit — not a license — lost control of her car in Far Rockaway, Queens, jumped the curb and slammed into 10-year-old Davina Afokoba, killing her. The car also hit mother of three Annele James, who suffered serious injuries to her leg and arm.

“I honestly thought somebody was trying to kill me,” recalled James, 33. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, why is this person trying to kill me?’ ”

Police determined that the woman hit the gas when she meant to hit the brake before vaulting the curb and striking Davina and James.

Five months later, James, a home health aide, is still on the mend. On June 7, an NYPD collision investigation squad detective told her police would not bring criminal charges against the woman who struck her. The woman was given a summons for driving with a learner’s permit without a licensed adult driver in the car with her.

Fines for driving alone with a learner’s permit range from $75 to $300, depending on the severity of the offense, authorities said.

“A thorough case review and consultation was conducted with the Queens district attorney’s office on [this case],” an NYPD spokeswoman said. “If a prima facie criminal charge was available with the facts at hand we would have pursued it.”

“I’m recuperating, but there’s a mom out there who lost her baby,” James said. “I’m not saying she [the motorist] should do 10 years, but this woman had no license and is facing no real repercussions. She can still go on and still live her life.”

Law enforcement “is not taking a hard enough look at these kind of crashes,” added James’ lawyer Charles Pizzolo. “Sometimes accidents have to have meaningful consequences. It certainly did for these two victims and their families.”

Not every crash is criminal act, said Lt. Jagdeep Singh of the collision investigation squad.

“God forbid you’re driving home today and blow a red light and that causes somebody’s death, but you did everything else right,” Singh said. “Blowing the light in itself is a vehicle traffic law violation. You will be appropriately punished, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to go to jail.”

The state’s vehicular manslaughter charge was created with the help of anti-drunken-driving groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, so the charge only applies if “he or she is in an intoxicated condition and as a result of such intoxication, operates such motor vehicle in a manner that causes the death of a person,” the law states.

Because of the way the laws are written, sober drivers who kill or maim someone usually face misdemeanors, Padwee’s lawyer Steve Vaccaro said, adding that any justice for victims and their families in such cases come through lawsuits against drivers’ insurance companies.

“We have people driving about in motor vehicles causing substantial injury and death, but if no one is drunk or impaired, there’s no way to channel [those charges],” said Vaccaro.

“But our clients who have lost family members, they’re left saying, ‘Why is it so different?’ ”

The judicial attitude about killer drivers is laid bare in court decisions.

On June 15, 2004, in upstate Sullivan County, 17-year-old Brett Cabrera, who was driving with a junior license, killed three of his teenage friends and seriously injured a fourth when his SUV slammed into a tree and flipped over.

He was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and assault on the basis that he was speeding, driving recklessly and violating the rules of his junior license, which restricted him to having two passengers in his vehicle younger than 21 and making sure that everyone was buckled up, which didn’t happen. Cabrera was sentenced to a maximum of four years in prison.

The state’s highest court tossed the felonies in 2008, finding that Cabrera’s actions didn’t meet the felony charges.

“It takes some additional affirmative acts by [Cabrera] to transform ‘speeding’ into ‘dangerous speeding;’ conduct by which [he] exhibits the kind of ‘serious blameworthy’ carelessness” required for a negligent homicide conviction, the state Court of Appeals noted.

Because of decisions like this, many cops and prosecutors look for two or more vehicular traffic law violations in fatal crash cases before even thinking about bringing serious criminal charges against a motorist, legal experts say.

Some change could be on the horizon.

Next year, Albany legislators will be asked to vote on a bill by state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan) that will allow victims of crashes and their families to give impact statements at DMV hearings.

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Another bill would give the city the authority to lower speed limits on certain streets without pending approval. Other proposed legislation would make streets more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly.

“These changes need to be drastic,” Hoylman said. “The carnage continues and Albany needs to work with City Hall and rewrite our traffic laws that disproportionately favor the driver at the expense of the dead and injured, which are largely pedestrian and cyclists.”



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