New York has long undervalued the lives of those injured or killed by drunken drivers. Last month, it undervalued them again via a law restricting an Erie County judge from imposing a sentence that was commensurate with the terrible crime committed by Abdikadir M. Jaffar.
Jaffar got drunk last New Year’s Eve, climbed into his car and ran into a group of pedestrians whose lives will never be the same. One teenager lost his left leg. Yet the most that Erie County Court Judge Kenneth F. Case could do was to sentence Jaffar to an indeterminate sentence of 3-1/3 to 10 years in prison for aggravated vehicular assault. Even the full sentence, which Jaffar is unlikely to serve, is insufficient punishment for the damage he did.
This tragedy may have been unintentional, but it is a gross insult to the victims to call it an accident. No motorist is unaware of the risks of intoxicated driving. Jaffar’s recklessness began before alcohol clouded his judgment and slowed his reaction time. It’s no accident when an intoxicated driver gets behind the wheel and causes tragedy.
Drunken driving carries obvious and predictable risks. That’s a fact. While the damage caused in this accident was particularly severe, it was not unthinkable. That Jaffar didn’t care about the risks he was willing to run and the damage he caused as a result isn’t reflected in the prison term he drew.
This is a problem of state legislators. New York has long been reluctant to deal appropriately with drunken driving. That indifference is evident in the limitations of the sentence Case was allowed to impose. As a direct result of Jaffar’s actions:
• Nathan Kahn, 15, had his left leg severed.
• His friend, Benjamin Weigel, suffered a concussion, a back injury and other injuries. He missed months of school.
• A 62-year-old pedestrian suffered a fractured pelvis, two broken legs, an injured shoulder and a concussion.
• A passenger in Jaffar’s car also suffered a concussion.
Jaffar’s blood-alcohol level was 0.22 percent, nearly triple the legal level of intoxication, 0.08 percent. He was driving on Richmond Avenue when he struck another car, hit a utility pole that broke in two, then rammed into the pedestrians. Compounding the crime, he told the people who detained him for police that he didn’t care that he had hit the group of people.
It’s no wonder that Case, the judge, expressed frustration that he couldn’t consider a sentence of life without parole. A minimum sentence of 3 1/3 years doesn’t come close to a sufficient punishment.
The problem in this case is in some ways the opposite one of mandatory minimum sentences, in which state or federal lawmakers establish sentences that are often excessive. That’s hardly the case here. Rather, lawmakers prescribe sentences that continue to treat injury by intoxication as a not-so-serious offense.
It’s late in the day for that kind of indifference. Society long ago acknowledged the dangers of driving while intoxicated, but New York laws have yet to catch up, as Case acknowledged in his courtroom late last month.
This shouldn’t be so hard. New York legislators need to better acknowledge the seriousness of crimes such as Jaffar committed, then give judges leeway to impose sentences reflective of the severity of the offense and the judge’s evaluation of the circumstances surrounding it.
Nathan is alive thanks to the efforts of bystanders and first responders. In a remarkable display of humanity, Andrew Kahn recounted what his son, Nathan, told him after coming out of surgery: “… the first thing he said – he grabbed my shirt and said, ‘Dad, don’t kill him, because then you’ll be just like him.’ ”
Western New Yorkers who read the Nov. 29 story about the plea can marvel at the courage of the families of the boys whose lives Jaffar shattered. They can be thankful for the refugees who spoke up about Jaffar’s bad character.
But they need to let their state representatives know that the laws need to do a much better job of acknowledging that terrible damage done in this case and others like it.