Will the State Finally Catch up With Scofflaw Truckers?The death of a 13-year-old bicyclist inspires demands for tougher laws against unlicensed drivers who kill
One might think that running over a bicyclist while driving a truck with a suspended driver’s license, or an invalid one, would warrant a serious criminal charge–especially if the cyclist is killed, which has occurred in two notorious cases in Brooklyn in the past year. In neither case did that happen, given the New York State laws on the books.
But legislative action to toughen up the penalties for scofflaw truckers and other drivers could now be more likely, given the outcry over the death last week of 13-year-old Kevin Flores, who was hit by an oil-delivery truck as he rode his bike in Bedford-Stuyvesant on his way home to Ridgewood, Queens. “There’s a reason for vehicle licenses; in the wrong hands, [the vehicles] can be deadly weapons,” declared Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, at a community vigil near the crash scene. He then issued a call to state legislators for stiffer penalties against drivers found to be operating commercial vehicles unlawfully, and the companies who employ those drivers. He added: “We will call it Kevin’s Law.”
According to police, at about 5:30 p.m. last Friday, an oil truck registered to Long Island-based M&M Oil Corp. was traveling north on Lewis Avenue in Bed-Stuy. As it turned right onto Jefferson Avenue, the teenaged cyclist and the passenger side of the vehicle collided, throwing him under the wheels. The alleged driver of the truck, Philip Monfoletto, 28, kept driving until he was flagged down by a pedestrian. By the time police arrived, Monfoletto was back at the scene. A blood-alcohol test was administered to him, which he passed. Paramedics transported Flores to the Interfaith Medical Center nearby, where doctors pronounced him dead of severe head trauma.
After police questioned Monfoletto, a resident of Deer Park, Long Island, he was arrested for driving with a suspended license. It was not the first time: he has had nine supensions, according to reports, or seven times, according to his lawyer. In either case, the number of Monfoletto’s suspensions was under the legal threshold to be charged with a felony, which is ten, so all the charges against him are misdemeanors.
In a case last July, a 63-year-old driver of a private garbage-hauling truck struck and killed a 27-year-old cyclist in Greenpoint. The driver had a license, but only the type valid for driving a car, not the class required for operating a big rig. Prosecutors said they had no evidence to slap him with more than a traffic ticket. “He did not have a valid license, and should not have been behind the wheel of that truck,” said Michael Kremins, a lawyer for the family of the victim, Neftaly Ramirez, told Brooklyn Paper. The family plans to sue the carting company, New Jersey-based Action Carting, whose trucks have killed five pedestrians or cyclists since 2008. All told, private carting trucks killed seven people last year.
After last week’s accident, State Senator Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat whose district includes Ridgewood, made a renewed call to his legislative colleagues to pass his bill to increase penalties for unlicensed drivers who kill. “It keeps happening because we refuse to give the [district attorneys] the weapons they need to prevent these things from happening,” he told The Bridge this week. Gianaris said the DA in such cases often looks to find evidence of harsher crimes in addition to the unlicensed-operations offense. But when such charges don’t materialize, Gianaris said, “the drivers end up literally getting away with murder.”
Gianaris has been trying to amend the law so that drivers charged like Monfoletto would face felonious vehicular-assault charges, and enhanced penalties, making them similar to those levied against drivers who operate vehicles while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Gianaris began work on the legislation after a similar December 2013 incident when an eight-year-old boy was killed on Northern Boulevard in Queens by an unlicensed driver operating a tractor-trailer.
Gianaris’s proposed bill perennially passes the State Senate, but has lacked approval by the Assembly. In this year’s legislative session, Gianaris and colleagues will champion the bill again, but possibly with additional measures penalizing companies who employ drivers with suspended licenses. Though he’s not certain what that provision might look like at this time, Gianaris said his consideration to include it was spurred by last week’s tragedy.
Monfolotto’s attorney, Ron Rubinstein, suggested that elected officials were grandstanding in using his client’s case as evidence of the need for tougher laws. “It’s a kneejerk reaction,” Rubinstein told The Bridge. “The bottom line is the accident had nothing to do with whether this man had a license or didn’t have a license. The accident was an accident. It’s a tragedy. Philip is devastated.”
Prosecutors might have yet another concern when they arrive in court to try Monfoletto. His lawyer said someone else was in the truck with Monfoletto at the time of the incident. Rubinstein told The Bridge he’s not willing to concede that Monfoletto was driving, only that his license was suspended and that Monfoletto was working toward getting that lifted.
Currently, the maximum penalty for driving with a suspended license, if the perpetrator has up to three suspensions, is a fine of $500 and 30 days in prison. Those two penalties can be combined, and the fine can be upped to $1,500 if the truck weighs more than 18,000 lbs. If a driver is convicted of the crime after four or more license suspensions, the penalty is a minimum fine of $500 and/or a jail sentence of seven to 180 days.
Tougher laws would be welcome by city cyclists, who’ve doubled in numbers over the past decade. While the rate of deaths-per-rider has declined, the raw numbers have increased. Cyclist deaths reached 23 in 2017, up from 18 the previous year, according to Vision Zero, Mayor de Blasio’s program dedicated to eliminating traffic deaths in New York.
Though Vision Zero has extensive guidelines for improving cyclist safety, Transportation Alternatives—an advocacy group for cyclists, pedestrians and public transit—released a report in late 2015 indicating an overwhelming number of drivers involved in fatal crashes never see charges. And the group pointed out in its Vision Zero report card for 2017 that more than half of the 23 cyclist fatalities last year occurred in known danger zones. “Ignoring priorities has deadly consequences,” the group warned.
Elected officials like Adams want to crack down not only on drivers, but on the companies who employ them. In Monfoletto’s case, he’s both alleged driver and company owner. He is named as a principal for the M&M Oil Corp. in a Dun & Bradstreet listing. M&M has one truck and two drivers, according to Department of Transportation records. “Sometimes it’s tricky to get at the company when they’re driving their own vehicle,” legislator Gianaris noted, adding, “that’s something we’re working through.”
To raise money for the family of fallen cyclist Kevin Flores, his school set up a GoFundMe webpage. The campaign exceeded its original $10,000 goal within two days.