The trial of David Lewis, the Coach USA bus driver who struck and killed Citi Bike rider Dan Hanegby in June 2017, lurched towards a conclusion yesterday as both the prosecution and defense announced they had no further witnesses to call. Judge Heidi Cesare announced October 1st for closing arguments and deliberations, further stretching a misdemeanor trial far past the norm for an offense that could land Lewis in jail for at most 30 days.
Lewis’s misdemeanor trial has been far from ordinary, however — not only was Hanegby the first cyclist to be killed while riding a Citi Bike in New York City since its introduction in 2013, but the trial stands as a test of the city’s “Right of Way” law, which was created in 2014 as part of a raft of legislation meant to hold city drivers accountable for reckless driving.
According to Marco Conner, the Legal & Legislative Director of Transportation Alternatives, New York’s District Attorneys have employed the law sparingly, with the offense only being charged anywhere from 12-70 times a year since its introduction. Transportation Alternatives has estimated that at least 3,000 pedestrians are injured every year by drivers failing to yield.
“The police department and district attorneys have applied a very narrow view of where this can be applied,” Conner told Gothamist, adding that the prosecution of Lewis, the charter bus driver, “appears to be an exception to the rule.”
Bus driver David Lewis outside the courtroom on Thursday. (Max Rivlin-Nadler / Gothamist)
The Right-of-Way law can be applied to drivers who fail to yield or kill or injure a person walking in the crosswalk who have the right of way. In the immediate aftermath of the collision, the NYPD said that Hanegby, 36, had "swerved" away from a parked vehicle and into the path of Lewis's bus. Gothamist found video evidence that contradicted this account. Four months later, the Manhattan DA charged Lewis with violating the Right of Way Law, in addition to failure to exercise due care, a traffic violation.
In court on Thursday, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Raffaela Belizaire and Lewis’s attorney, Jeremy Saland, quibbled over the specific charges that Lewis is facing, and whether the prosecution would have to prove that Lewis was being negligent when he tried to pass Hanegby on West 26th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.
According to Conner, drivers charged under the “Right of Way” law have gone to trial at least seven times since its introduction. In 2016, a Queens judge found the law was unconstitutional, however the city vowed to continue enforcing the law regardless of the judge’s ruling.
Lewis was offered a plea deal that would have handed him a $1,000 fine, driver remediation classes, and a six month license suspension, but he chose not to take the deal.
Thursday morning, surveillance video of the collision was made public, over the objections of Lewis’s defense, which claimed that releasing the video could in some way influence witness testimony.
“There are strong emotions in the cyclist community in how they’re treated,” Saland told judge Cesare, referring to “online forums” where the case was being discussed. Saland admitted that the case had grown to reflect something much larger than what has played out over the past two weeks in Manhattan criminal court.
“There’s a different agenda going on here,” Saland said.
Warning: The video is disturbing:
The final witness called by the defense was John Karpovich, an expert in accident reconstructions. Using digital measurements of the street, the parked vehicles, the bus and the Citi Bike, the Karpovich testified that there were several feet of space through which Hanegby could have safely maneuvered when Lewis passed him.
ADA Belizaire countered that Karpovich was a paid witness, and earlier in the trial had argued that Lewis had made a “terribly miscalculated risk” when he chose to pass Hanegby, and “failed to exercise due care. And because of these failures, the defendant cost Dan Hanegby his life.”
After Karpovich's testimony, Saland rested his case. Soon after, the judge announced because of scheduling issues, one of the city’s longest running misdemeanor trials would stretch, improbably, into another calendar month.