2005-05-11 / Editorials

Vasean’s Law Gives Drunk Drivers Fitting Penalties

By a vote of 137 to zero—no opposition at all—the New York state Assembly passed Vasean’s Law last Monday, May 2. Two days later, the state senate passed the bill, also by a unanimous vote. Governor George Pataki had promised earlier to sign the measure, which stiffens the punishment for driving while intoxicated (DWI) when death or serious injury result, as soon as it reaches his desk.

The bill is named for Vasean Philip Alleyne, who was killed at age 11 after being hit by 56-year old John Wirta, a drunk driver, on Oct. 22, 2004, as he and his best friend, 12-year-old Angel Reyes, were crossing 73rd Avenue at 150th Street in Kew Gardens Hills. Angel was left in critical condition with head injuries and was in a coma for a week before being sent home to recover. Wirta was charged with DWI, a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in jail. Though almost paralyzed by grief, Vasean’s mother, Monique Dixon, and Angel’s mother, Diana Reyes, spearheaded a public crusade to convince the state legislature to draft new legislation on tougher penalties for drunk drivers who kill or seriously injure victims.

The legislation was needed. The law then on the books deemed a first-time offense a misdemeanor, and carried a penalty of a fine of $500 to $1,000 or up to one year in prison or both. License suspension and revocation also might apply and penalties would increase for drivers with prior convictions, but the law still amounted to a slap on the wrist, no matter how much havoc and grief a drunk driver caused.

Vasean’s Law, in contrast, eliminates criminal negligence, such as speeding, as a requirement for proving vehicular assault or vehicular manslaughter. Instead, the bill creates the presumption that in the case of serious injury or death involving alcohol or drugs, the driver’s intoxication caused the accident. “To strengthen provisions of the Penal Law that relate to the crimes of vehicular assault and vehicular manslaughter caused by a person driving a vehicle while intoxicated or impaired by the use of a drug sends a powerful message, to both the families of DWI victims and those who cause their loss,” Assemblymember Brian McLaughlin, who was one of the new bill’s sponsors, said.

Sadly, Wirta will be punished under the old law, which was in force when he committed his crime. So, too, will Gerald Gormley, a 37-year-old carpenter who drove his 1991 Chevrolet Caprice into a 2002 Ford Taurus at 31st Street and 35th Avenue early in the morning of April 10. In that incident, 10-year-old Ilda Ujkaj, who was riding with her family in the Ford vehicle, spent a week in a coma before regaining consciousness. Other family members were injured in the crash as well. Gormley fled to the nearby home of a relative, but was arrested after witnesses to the crash pursued him and let police know his whereabouts. Charged with driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident, all he faces is four years in prison.

It has been obvious since someone first got drunk on whatever happened to be in vogue at the time and drove his oxcart into a ditch that alcohol and wheels don’t mix. Even dray carts buggies and hansom cabs could be and were driven to the public danger if whoever held the reins was drunk. The problem only increased with the advent of self-propelled vehicles. And in the United States, especially, for too long driving cars was unregulated or governed by outmoded laws that dated from horse-and-buggy days. Driving was regarded as a right, not a privilege. Even if they injured or killed someone, drunk drivers generally are not punished with any degree of severity. Now, owever, thanks to the tireless efforts of Monique Dixon and Diana Reyes—and to McLaughlin, Assemblymember Nettie Mayersohn and state Senators Toby Stavisky and Serphin Maltese, who heeded their plaint and sponsored the legislation—in New York state, at least, drunk drivers who injure or kill innocent victims will be accorded penalties more in line with the severity of their crimes.

“I wish there was no need for Vasean’s Law, but, regrettably, there is,” McLaughlin said when the bill passed the Assembly. He’s right. There will always be people who get drunk and then drive, making their vehicles and themselves instruments of death and destruction. The knowledge that Vasean’s Law exists may keep some of them off the road. At the very least, the law will ensure that a drunk or impaired driver who causes death or injury to an innocent person will incur a penalty more in keeping with the nature of the crime.

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