Jason Shein never had time to react. As soon as the 21-year-old caught a glimpse of Persi Esquivel’s SUV careening across the double-yellow lines of Conklin Street in Farmingdale, it was already too late. The 46-year-old Esquivel, driving drunk in his Ford Explorer Thanksgiving weekend 2008, had more than three times the legal limit of alcohol pumping through his bloodstream. At estimated speeds of 80 mph, he drove directly through the windshield of Shein’s Chrysler Sebring, killing the medical student and severely injuring three other passengers.
Shein, of Levittown, had been returning home from dinner with the three friends. He was scheduled to catch a flight the next morning back to the University of Miami, where he was studying to be a neurologist. For the family he left behind—mother Betsy, father Albert and sisters Deena and Jami—the pain of that fateful night will live on forever.
“His smile was priceless,” Betsy Shein told a packed, emotional courtroom at Esquivel’s sentencing in Nassau County Court on Oct. 29, 2009, in between sobs. “My dreams are shattered.”
Esquivel, dressed in a white-collared dress shirt, appearing stoic and emotionless, received little sympathy from Nassau County Judge James McCormack or prosecutors from Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice’s Office. The Valley Stream resident pled guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide—the toughest drunk driving-specific law on the books in New York State (NYS), co-drafted by Rice—among a slew of other charges. He was sentenced to the maximum, 7 to 21 years.
Yet Esquivel had been through the system before, convicted in 2006 of driving while intoxicated (DWI). Following that misdemeanor conviction, Nassau County Attorney Lorna Goodman’s Office, in compliance with county law against convicted DWI offenders, started a civil action in Nassau County Supreme Court for forfeiture of the vehicle—whereby the county moves to seize it. As part of his probation conditions, Esquivel had also been required to install an ignition interlock device on any vehicle under his control—which would test his breath for alcohol and prevent the engine from starting unless he was clean. But the county attorney’s office—through its Vehicle Forfeiture Bureau—never followed through with its lawsuit to take his car. And Esquivel transferred ownership of the SUV to a friend, Oscar Flores, skirting the law, and continued to drive.
The Ford Explorer involved in his 2006 conviction is the same vehicle that ended up killing Shein.
There’s a secret in Nassau, the county hailed as having the toughest laws against drunk driving in the nation. It’s a secret shared among defense attorneys representing those arrested and convicted of driving drunk or under the influence. It’s a secret whispered between members of the county attorney’s office charged with seizing the vehicles used in the vast majority of these cases.
And though no one can say with 100-percent certainty whether the events of that tragic night last November would have been different, or averted, had the county moved to separate Esquivel from “the 400-pound bullet that murdered our son,” as Besty Shein described his SUV at the sentencing, it’s a secret that, if addressed, might have saved Shein’s life and perhaps the lives of others. Because the shelving of Esquivel’s earlier DWI forfeiture motion is not a solitary case.
A Press investigation has uncovered what many attorneys representing drunk drivers across Long Island have known and whose clients have been benefiting from for years: Goodman’s vehicle forfeiture program against convicted misdemeanor DWI offenders is a colossal mess. The staff of the Vehicle Forfeiture Bureau, charged with executing those actions, is understaffed and overwhelmed. There is a tremendous backlog. Thousands of cases are commenced against misdemeanor DWI offenders annually under the banner of seizing their vehicles, but the majority of these cases go absolutely nowhere. The vehicles are never taken from the drivers. They’re never sold at auction. Instead, the cases die on the vine, stuffed in cabinet drawers and boxes littering the county attorney’s office in Mineola in a type of living morgue—never pursued.
But the secret’s out and it’s making the rounds. Betsy and Albert Shein tell the Press they, too, are aware of the backlog and are considering a civil lawsuit against the county for negligence. They’re also planning a lawsuit against Flores, for his role in the scheme that skirted the interlock law. Betsy wonders how many others were the victims of drunk drivers whose cars should have been taken away yet weren’t, only to be driven again.
“[We’re] very angry that it’s been going on for so long and that I had to lose my son to find this out,” Betsy laments. “The shit should hit the fan, definitely.”
Goodman, contacted by phone at her home on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan after she didn’t return a request for comment at work, declines to answer whether there is a backlog until after checking with her staff, saying that she hadn’t spoken to the unit in “about three months.” She acts surprised when asked about the Esquivel story.
“I have never heard of this case,” she says emphatically.
The Esquivel case and Shein tragedy has been covered by The New York Times, Newsday, News 12 Long Island, ABC, 1010WINS, The Associated Press and other local and regional publications, TV, radio stations and websites. She ultimately declined comment.
Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who appointed Goodman, did not return a request for comment for this story.
In Nassau, both misdemeanors and felony offenses, the most serious DWI crimes, are prosecuted by Rice’s office. Rice has earned a national reputation for her tough-as-nails stance against the drunk-driving scourge, which claimed the lives of nearly 12,000 victims last year countrywide, according to the latest figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). She has attacked the problem from multiple fronts, establishing education programs for schools, elevating charges for the worst offenders and creating an entirely specialized department, the Vehicular Crimes Bureau, among other initiatives. Her war against drunk driving has even been featured on 60 Minutes and may very well be the foundation of a run for state attorney general next year.
Drunk drivers with prior DWI convictions are generally charged with felonies in Nassau; the severity and circumstances of the DWI incident and blood alcohol content (BAC) level of the offender are also determining factors. The district attorney’s office will seize the vehicles of convicted DWI felons, as well as those used as instrumentalities of other crimes, such as transporting weapons or drugs.
First-time drunk drivers receive misdemeanor charges. If convicted, the lesser-known County Attorney’s Office—through its Vehicle Forfeiture Bureau—will file a civil lawsuit, within 120 days of arrest, to seize the offender’s vehicle, under a similar premise, but only for misdemeanors. If successful, those vehicles will be offered for sale at public auction.