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Death of East Elmhurst toddler riles elected officials, safe streets advocates

A teddy bear, candles and flowers mark the spot where an 8-month-old child was struck and killed by a van in East Elmhurst.
Photo by Bill Parry
By Bill Parry

Safe streets advocates are outraged that the driver of a van that struck and killed an 8-month-old toddler in East Elmhurst Friday was released without bail later that evening.

Armando Morales-Rodriguez, 44, was arraigned before Queens Criminal Court Judge Ernest Hart and charged with driving without a license. He was released on his own recognizance and ordered to return to court Dec. 5, according to the Queens DA’s office.

“DAs need to be willing to apply existing criminally negligent/reckless laws to operation of a motor vehicle,” Transportation Alternatives’ Peter Beadle said. “If you walked down a sidewalk swinging a toaster by its power cord and accidently brained someone, you’d be facing charges. It should be no different if you are in a van.”

Prosecutors say Morales-Rodriguez was backing his van out of a driveway in front of 92-20 Astoria Blvd. when it struck baby Navraj Raju’s stroller as he was being pushed by his mother, who was not hurt. The little boy was rushed to Elmhurst Hospital Center, where he died from his injuries.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) was not surprised Morales-Rodriguez was released. This past May, his bill to crack down on drivers who kill or seriously injure others while driving with a revoked, suspended or otherwise invalid license, passed in the Senate but not the Assembly.

“Unfortunately, the law doesn’t give law enforcement the tools necessary to treat these people as seriously as they should be,” Gianaris said. “We said the last time that we hoped there wouldn’t be another tragedy before we fix it and now there has been. We’re going to redouble our efforts in the next session.”

State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) believes the release of Morales-Rodriguez is a sign that the system has broken down.

“To be out there without bail is saddening,” he said. “How do you tell the parents, how will the parents react? How will the community react that he can take away an 8-month-old life and easily come out without bail?”

That the tragedy occurred on Astoria Boulevard, a street in a “Priority Area” identified by the city as dangerous and in need of fixing in 2015, is a sign that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero efforts have stalled, according to Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White.

“Traffic fatalities on city streets and highways are up for the first time in three years,” he said. “As of Monday, 192 had been killed on city streets, including 114 pedestrians. The killing of this baby makes 115 New Yorkers whose lives were cut short, just walking the streets.”

Cristina Furlong, the co-founder of Make Queens Safer, said the city must speed up the redesigns of streets like Astoria Boulevard while the state Legislature toughens the laws.

“I really don’t know if Armando Rodriguez should sit in jail for the rest of his life. Surely he should never be behind the wheel of a motor vehicle,” she said. “Surely his debt to Navraj’s family needs to be paid somehow. But without the proper laws on the books, the DA’s hands are tied. We’ve got to look to Albany to revise the traffic laws that allow killer drivers to be set free while all across the city, families lose loved ones to this recklessness.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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