DA urges lawmakers to close hit and run loophole

01/16/2013 3:45 PM |

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota demanded lawmakers increase the punishment for hit-and-run drivers.

Drivers in Suffolk County are exploiting a legal loophole that lets them “get away” with serious crimes by fleeing the scenes of accidents, a trend that has become an “epidemic,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota.

At a press conference Wednesday, Mr. Spota urged state lawmakers to increase penalties for drivers who flee the scenes of serious accidents, citing the last month’s deadly hit-and-run accident in downtown Riverhead as a “perfect example” of how criminals are escaping harsher punishment.

“Drivers who flee and aren’t apprehended for days or weeks should not be treated more leniently than a driver who stays to perhaps render aid to another person,” Mr. Spota said. “Unfortunately, under the current law, this is exactly what’s happening today.”

In the Riverhead fatality, authorities say Joseph Plummer, 48, of Middle Island struck a man who was out celebrating his 50th birthday on East Main Street the evening of Dec. 28. Mr. Plummer allegedly fled the scene and then plotted with his boss to avoid capture.

While a more serious charge like aggravated vehicular homicide carries a 25-year maximum sentence, Mr. Plummer was indicted Wednesday by a grand jury on a charge of leaving the scene of an incident without reporting charge, a class D felony that carries a maximum sentence of seven years.

“There is no reason for people who unfortunately cause an accident and stop to be charged with serious crimes while those who cause an accident and flee are getting away with it,” Mr. Spota said.

Mr. Plummer was being held on $500,000 cash bail or $1 million bond, a DA spokesman said.

Mr. Spota said Mr. Plummer was traveling home from working on a pool in Aquebogue at the time of the incident.

While heading west through downtown Riverhead, Mr. Plummer struck Scott Wyte of Brookhaven, who was celebrating his birthday with his wife and child, he said.

Mr. Wayte had parked his car on the north side of the road and was walking across the street after adjusting his car when he was struck by Mr. Plummer and knocked into the opposite lane, where he was struck again by a second driver, Mr. Spota said.

The second driver stopped to assist Mr. Wayte, but Mr. Plummer fled the scene and drove 10 miles to a gas station despite severe damage to his car’s windshield, Mr. Spota said.

Mr. Plummer contacted his boss, who owned the car involved in the incident, and together they plotted to cover up the accident, Mr. Spota charged.

The suspect’s boss is cooperating with authorities and has not yet been charged with a crime, he said.

The two first planned to report the car stolen and take the insurance money before deciding to say the car was damaged when it struck a tree, the DA said. The two had splinters of wood they were planning to plant on the car to back up their claim and had covered the damaged car with a tarp until they could go through with their plan, Mr. Spota said.

But a witness who saw the car and had seen a report on News12 contacted police, who arrested Mr. Plummer two days later, Mr. Spota said.

On the day of the crash, Mr. Plummer had been drinking vodka since the morning from a Poland Spring water bottle, but since he was not apprehended until days later, authorities can’t prove he was drunk at the time of the crash, Mr. Spota said.

“I would bet every penny that had we gotten him right away, he would have been charged with far more serious crimes,” he said.

Mr. Spota also detailed two other serious hit-and-run accidents occurring within a week of the fatal Riverhead crash. In the first incident, a man driving drunk from a club crashed into a car stopped at a red light in Central Islip, killing the driver inside. The man fled the scene, but was apprehended when a taxi driver reported his license plate to police.

In the second incident, a man ran down a teenager on Udall Road in West Islip, then fled the scene and tried to cover up the accident with his girlfriend, authorities said. And on Sunday, another driver under the influence of drugs crashed into five cars on Montauk Highway, fleeing the scene and causing a crash that killed an elderly man before colliding with a telephone pole.

These alleged criminals show no care for those they hurt and the current system lets them get off easy, Mr. Spota said.

“People are not stopping,” he said. “They won’t consider that a person may need help. They could call the police right away, maybe emergency people could respond, maybe a life could be saved. But because of their own self-interest they take off; however, by taking off they’re also escaping more serious criminal responsibility for their actions.”

Mr. Spota will meet with state Assemblyman Edward Hennessey, who serves Yaphank, Medford and Bellport, and county Legislator Kate Browning to discuss how to increase the penalties for hit-and-run crimes.

psquire@timesreview.com