Bill Seeks To Put Teeth in Police Probes of Serious Crashes

February 14, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff

By Zach Campbell

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — Nicole Bergman received the call from the police — from her boyfriend Stefanos’ cell phone —  around the same time two officers came to her door.The phone call and the foot messengers delivered the same message: that Stefanos  was in critical condition after being thrown off his bicycle by a vehicle. Stefanos, then 29 and a doctoral candidate at NYU, was transported to the nearest hospital to undergo emergency brain surgery that, by a slim chance, could save his life.

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“If he had arrived in his state at any other hospital,” Bergman said in a statement, “he would be declared DOA.”

Stefanos was declared dead three days later. The surgery did not save him, and the fact that the doctors initially thought he had a slight chance of survival would eventually be what delayed the investigation into Stefanos’ death.

According to the NYPD Patrol Guide, the Accident Investigation Squad (AIS) is to be called in the case of crashes that “result in death or serious injury and likely to die.” Because doctors were attempting surgery to save Stefanos’ life, the NYPD did not immediately investigate the crash site. They began the crash investigation two weeks later, interviewing the driver by phone in his home state of Florida and surveying the area for witnesses and video.

“All I expected from the investigation was closure, and the two-week delay cost me that,” Bergman said.

A new bill is being pushed in Albany by State Senator Daniel Squadron (D-Downtown Brooklyn/Lower Manhattan) and Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh  (D-Gramercy Park/Lower East Side) that seeks to close the loophole that delays police investigations into serious vehicular crashes.

The bill, written in consultation with the city’s District Attorneys’ offices and the NYPD, would strengthen certain amendments to the traffic code, known as Hayley and Diego’s Law and Elle’s Law, that were the first laws in the state that added penalties for hurting or killing others through reckless driving.

“Hayley and Diego’s Law made it clear that a driver’s license is not a license for carelessness. But we now must provide law enforcement with additional tools to effectively crack down on careless driving,” said Squadron, who also sponsored Hayley and Diego’s Law in 2009. “This bill is another important step.”

As the law stands now, citations can only be issued if the ticketing officer is present to witness the crash. The new bill seeks to close this loophole by giving officers the ability to arrest or issue summonses, provided they have “reasonable cause” to believe that a person “has failed to use due care in the operation of a motor vehicle.”

“We’re talking about crashes where there are witnesses who want to testify, and the officer, going by the book, would not write a violation,” Juan Martinez of Transportation Alternatives explained. “If the victim dies, they get an AIS investigation, but for the vast majority of crashes that don’t end in death, the investigation doesn’t happen and the violation doesn’t get written.”

The bill is also part of a greater crash prevention effort on the part of the city. The City Council’s Public Safety and Transportation committees are holding a joint hearing Wednesday to address what some see as a need for more thorough investigation of traffic crashes by the police. Martinez hopes it will lead to the investigation of more crashes and their causes and a rewriting of the standard in the police patrol guide.

“The question shouldn’t be how dead you have to be to get an AIS investigation,” he later added. “The question is really what that standard should be.”

The hearing will include testimony from Nicole Bergman.

“If the ‘story’ of the crash had been based on more than the word of the driver, and if the police had proceeded with a serious investigation regardless of the what seems to be an arbitrary designation of likeliness of death,” she said, “I could have some peace of mind.”

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