Lander Steps Up Pressure on NYPD Probes of Traffic Deaths

March 23, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Zach Campbell
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

BROOKLYN — “No one should be forced to sue the NYPD to get timely, accurate information about the death of their loved one,” Erika Lefevre wrote, three months after her son Mathieu was struck and killed by a crane truck while cycling through Bushwick.

Critical of the investigation into the crash that killed their son, Erika and Alain Lefevre did file suit against the NYPD earlier this year under the state Freedom of Information law (FOIL), alleging that the department withheld and delayed the delivery of information from the investigation.

Local advocacy groups and elected officials are increasingly calling for more resources to be devoted to the investigation of the hundreds of traffic-related deaths in New York City each year, and are holding Mathieu Lefevre’s case as an example of what they call the NYPD’s lack of transparency and its unwillingness to share basic information with victims’ grieving families.

The amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief was jointly filed by the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives and Brad Lander, the City Council member representing many of the neighborhoods between Cobble Hill and Borough Park. Both hope to set a precedent for how to treat future cases of this type.

“I was shocked to find out that only 19 detectives citywide, along with a handful of supervisors, are responsible for investigating hundreds of fatal crashes occurring in New York City each year,” said Lander, who, alongside other council members, has recently been very critical of certain NYPD policies, including its stop-and-frisk program and its surveillance of Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey.

Mathieu Lefevre’s case is one of important public interest, the amicus brief argues, both because of the importance of quickly getting information to loved ones, and because of the public interest in greater transparency in government.

“Traffic crashes do not discriminate. Virtually any New Yorker, from any walk of life, may at any time suddenly become the victim of a crash,” it reads. “When fatal collisions occur, surviving spouses, parents and children feel an overwhelming need to learn how their loved one died.

“Timely, accurate information regarding crashes under the FOIL,” the document continues, “is a critical and necessary element of transparent government and public awareness.”

The NYPD has filed a motion to have the Lefevres’ claim thrown out of court, maintaining that the department has fulfilled its obligation under FOIL and was able to withhold information initially because of an ongoing investigation. The police department’s lawyers also seek to declare the Lefevres’ case moot, citing as precedent a 1992 FOIL suit where a court denied an inmate, convicted of rape, robbery and assault, access via the law to information on his own case and investigation.

Incidently, that was the case of Alan Newton, the Bronx man who, after serving 21 years in prison, was cleared of crimes by DNA evidence that had originally been reported lost by the NYPD, only to later turn up after 11 years of litigation.

Newton later sued the city for $18.5 million and won.

Juan Martinez, Transportation Alternatives’ lawyer, reported similar setbacks in his organization’s requests for information from the NYPD under the Freedom of Information law.

“We joined the suit to show that, had [the Lefevres] not sued, they would have ended up in our situation,” Martinez said, adding that he has sent six FOIL requests to the NYPD in the last year, none of which have been completed.

According to FOIL, city agency records are presumed to be open and public, but can be withheld under certain exemptions. These exemptions apply to records whose release would “interfere with law enforcement investigations or judicial proceedings,” or constitute an invasion of privacy, among others.

Still, Lander, Transportation Alternatives and the Lefevres themselves maintain that the information surrounding Mathieu Lefevre’s death could have been released much earlier, and still has not been released in full.

“In the Levefres’ case, the facts happened very quickly,” Martinez  explained. “They found the truck, they found the guy and decided they weren’t going to press charges within weeks.”

He later added, “we’re not expected by the law to have to resort to a lawsuit to get this kind of information.”

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