“So I look on the computer and I see he has a new DWI and there’s a fatality,” he continues. “And my understanding, is that the car that they’re referring to, was used in the DWI. So I contacted them back and I said, ‘You can’t get your check, you have his car. That’s the same one he used in this stupid case.’”
Madey has a feeling the only reason they may have contacted him about the case, “is because what happened, as far as him being in an accident, triggered them to maybe act a little.”
The money sought by the county was likely the Blue Book value of the SUV, plus the $1,500 penalty, due to its illegal transfer to his friend to skirt the interlock mandate. The county attorney’s office never followed through with its initial lawsuit—though its next move, a motion for summary judgement, could have caught the underhanded maneuver, says several attorneys.
While conversations about keeping word of the backlog from the press swirl around the county attorney’s office, it’s no secret anywhere that drunk driving is a national epidemic with deadly consequences. In 2008, an estimated 11,773 people died in drunk driving crashes involving a driver with an illegal BAC of .08 or higher, according to national nonprofit Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), citing a December 2009 report from the NHTSA. Nationally, those figures have fallen since 2007, says the analysis, down 7 percent from 13,041, and in New York State, down 10.7 percent during that period. That’s undoubtedly the impact of increased awareness about the problem, new technology and tougher laws, such as those co-authored by Rice.
Last month, NYS Gov. David Paterson signed the Child Passenger Protection Act, known as Leandra’s Law, making it a felony to drive drunk with a child and mandating ignition interlock devices for all DWI offenders, including misdemeanors.
While fatalities are down, the war is far, far from over. Thomas McCoy, executive director of Long Island MADD, envisions a day when those who help offenders like Esquivel circumvent those mandates would also be held accountable, stressing the impact such devices have against recidivism. He uses another method to gauge the severity of the problem: arrests.
“And that doesn’t seem to go down, which means, regardless of the fact that there are or are not fatalities, there are still people driving drunk,” he says. “Which is kind of the essence of the thing.”
It also stresses the importance of enforcing existing laws.
Mineola-based attorney Dennis M. Lemke, who represents Esquivel on his current case, believes the county attorney’s system may be in need of an overhaul.
“The policy that’s in effect now, regarding seized vehicles for first-time offenders, needs to be re-evaluated in Nassau County,” he explains. “There is a tremendous backlog of litigation to seize these vehicles. If they are assessed on a case-by-case basis, you would have less litigation and these cases would move quicker through the system on forfeitures.”
“Who knows?” speculates Lemke. “Yes, it could be that opportunity that had they moved quicker, and we’re not talking 30 days later, but clearly within a year there should have been some response regarding that car.”
Pandemonium And Hope
It’s been more chaotic than normal inside the county attorney’s office, an office staffed primarily with political appointees, ever since Suozzi conceded his seat to Nassau County Legis. Ed Mangano, a Republican, Dec. 1. Employees, while doing their best to keep up with their daily workload, are bracing for the worst. Many have been worrying whether they’ll have a job come Jan. 1, when Mangano officially takes over. Mangano already announced that he’ll be replacing Goodman with John Ciampoli, special counsel to the NYS Republican Conference. There’s also been talk of trying to unionize. As if working the seemingly never-ending DWI caseload and trying to cut into the backlog isn’t stressful enough.
“Everybody’s worried about losing their jobs, they don’t want to look bad,” says one current employee. “No one knows what’s going to happen.”
But the program, even as backlogged and dysfunctional as its present state, can work—as a vicious deterrent against the drunk driving scourge, and as a revenue generator during these tough economic times—if history is any teacher.
From 1999 through 2001, the cars seized by Nassau under its initial program piled up—numbering 1,400 by 2000, explains Garden City attorney Andrew J. Campanelli. Before long, the stockpile cost county taxpayers millions to maintain and had little financial return. He took over the program in 2002 on a contingency basis. The results were dramatic.
In that first year, he increased revenues by 1,800 percent—collecting more than $1.1 million against the county’s annual average of $58,000—and stopped the hemorrhaging of $115,000 per month, according to a 2002 report that went to Goodman and others.
More importantly, the redirection had contributed to a 26-percent reduction in accidents by intoxicated drivers and a 35-percent drop in arrests, Suozzi announced at a June 26, 2003 press conference.
Montesano’s landmark case, County of Nassau v. Canavan, further changed the process, resulting in Nassau’s policy being ruled unconstitutional and new guidelines providing the accused several affirmative defenses and innocent owner relief.
Campanelli’s contract with the county allegedly wasn’t renewed following his refusal to make a $10,000 political contribution at the behest of Nassau County Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs and Suozzi—the claims the subject of a 2004 federal lawsuit—but his success shows that it can be done.
Soon, it’ll be up to Mangano and Ciampoli to pick up the pieces and sort through the crammed cabinet drawers and several dozen overflowing boxes containing these cases spread out across the office. And Mangano plans to do just that.
“This is unacceptable,” says Mangano, who was shocked to hear of the Shein tragedy from the Press. “It’s why we are looking into every department. I cannot understand how a county attorney’s office that had expanding from 50 to 108 attorneys could have such a costly backlog of cases. The new county attorney will look into it immediately. This just cannot continue.”
Betsy and Albert Shein can only hope—demand—that he follows through.