As traffic deaths go, the case of 3-year-old Allison Liao may be one of the saddest. On October 6 of last year, the little girl was crossing Main Street in Flushing, with the light, in a crosswalk, holding her grandmother's hand. The two were about half way across the street when a black Nissan SUV made a left turn, sucked Allison under a tire and knocked her grandmother, Chin Hua, to the ground.
What makes this traffic death particularly disturbing is that the incident — just one among the nearly 300 that occur in New York City every year — was captured on video, by chance, by a dashboard camera on a passing vehicle.
The entire left turn, and the death and serious injury it caused, took about two seconds. The 44-year old driver, Ahmed Abu-Zayedeh, has suffered no official consequences from his action. The Queens D.A. declined to prosecute because the driver wasn’t impaired. But he did receive two tickets: failure to yield to a pedestrian and failure to use due care.
In July, those tickets arrived in traffic court, before Administrative Law Judge William Lee at Queens North, an employee of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
It took 47 seconds to dispose of the case, according to the official recording.The first thing you hear is the judge puzzling over the spelling of the defense lawyer’s name.
“Mr. Truck? Turck? K-C. T-U-R-C-K. All right, make your appearance counselor.” That takes 13 seconds.
Shawn Turck states his name, the driver’s name, and his law firm address.
Then the judge says: “This is an accident investigation? No personal observation?" A police officer, never identified on the tape, says “That’s right.” Then the judge asks “No videotape?" But before the officer can get beyond the word “Um—“ the judge stamps the tickets. That takes all of six seconds. Then: “Not Guilty.”
The judge doesn’t ask the police officer to state what happened, or ask for any official documents or investigations. The police officer doesn't protest that YES, there IS a video tape.
State sources said it was up to the police to present their case. Police sources say they’ve been complaining to the DMV for a long time that it’s wrong, legally, for judges to require a “personal observation” in traffic fatality cases —but the DMV hasn’t responded.
None of this is consoling to Hsi-Pei Liao, who didn’t even learn of the hearing until earlier this month, because the DMV has no mechanism to notify families of these hearings — or even to make sure the judge knows a fatality occurred. When Liao and his lawyer sat down to depose the driver in the Liao’s civil case, it was the first time Liao had ever seen Abu-Zayedeh. Then they learned the driver had been cleared of even a traffic violation.
“I just ended up putting my head down, shaking, asking how could this happen," Liao said last week. "There’s so much evidence that’s there. What irritates even more — the driver still believes that it was not his fault whatsoever.”
The state DMV says it will hold a special hearing, as it routinely does in all fatality cases, to see if Abu-Zayedeh’s license should be revoked. It added that it has “no authority with regard to law enforcement or criminal prosecution.”
The agency initially refused to answer any of Liao’s questions about the hearing, or any of mine. But Liao posted his distress on Facebook and it went viral. Advocates began calling for DMV commissioner Barbara Fiala, a long-time Cuomo family loyalist, to be replaced. Transportation Alternatives’ Paul Steely White called on the governor to appoint a “safety-minded reformer.”
This is not the first time she’s drawn fire. In 2011, Fiala tried to eliminate the vision test requirement to renew licenses, a decision that was hastily reversed. Last month, she got a ticket for speeding near her home in Broome County. Fiala didn’t respond to several requests for an interview. The officer said she was going 47 miles in 30 mph zone. That's the type of "victimless" violation that traffic courts are designed for — not the tragic death of a 3-year-old girl.
Liao and a group of safety advocates and other relatives of victims met with Cuomo administration officials Tuesday. A Cuomo administration official, who wouldn’t speak for the record because the safety hearing hasn’t been held yet, said the administration will review the way the DMV handles summonses when there are fatalities. Asked if Governor Cuomo was satisfied with Barbara Fiala’s record on traffic safety, the official did not say.
As for Hsi-Pei Liao, it’s hard for him think about that hearing without tears in his eyes. A text-book definition of “summarily dismissed.”