Assemblymen pushing for hit-and-run regs before session ends

06/12/2014 3:38 PM |
Police at the scene of the fatal hit and run on Route 58 near Woodcrest Avenue in  July 2013. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)

Police at the scene of the fatal hit and run on Route 58 near Woodcrest Avenue in July 2013. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)

With just five days left in the New York State Assembly session, North Fork and East End lawmakers are making a last-minute push to drum up support for bills that would increase penalties for hit-and-run drivers who flee the scene of serious accidents.

Those bills — including one co-sponsored by the North Fork’s assemblyman, Anthony Palumbo — are currently stalled in committee, where they have sat since January. The legislators say they have until Tuesday to get a bill out of the committee and onto the floor for a full Assembly vote.

“Really what we need to do is put pressure on the chair [of the Transportation Committee] to do it,” Mr. Palumbo told the News-Review. “It needs to be reported to the floor by Tuesday, because it looks like we’re going to wrap up Thursday or Friday of next week.”

Efforts last year to up the penalties for hit-and-runs failed when a similar bill died in the same committee. The committee chairperson, Assemblyman David Gantt (D-Rochester), could not be reached for comment.

HitRunBoxA state Senate version of this year’s bill passed in May. state Sens. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) both voted for the increased penalties.

Lawmakers and Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota have urged the Assembly to pass harsher rules against hit-and-run perpetrators, saying that the current rules encourage those who are breaking the law — more specifically, those drinking or on drugs, to flee the scene after a crash.

Under the current set of laws, leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death is a class D felony that carries a maximum sentence of 2 1/3 to 7 years in prison, according to a 2013 New-Review special report. By comparison, aggravated vehicular homicide carries a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

Mr. Palumbo — a former prosecutor and defense attorney — said fleeing the scene makes it harder for authorities to bring a driver up on harsher charges.

“It would almost encourage someone who is in an accident to flee,” he said.

The legislation co-sponsored by Mr. Palumbo and put forth by Assemblyman Edward Hennessey (D-Medford) would create a new crime called “aggravated leaving the scene,” which would impose up to a 15-year sentence for hit-and-run drivers with revoked or suspended licenses.

The other bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), would simply increase penalties across the board for hit-and-run drivers.

Supporters say either bill would improve the current situation.

In December 2012, Scott Wayte, a Brookhaven father of two, was struck and killed on Main Street in Riverhead by a man who later pleaded guilty to fleeing the scene.

Prosecutors said the driver — a 49-year-old two-time felon named Joseph Plummer — was likely drinking the night he struck the victim, and conspired to cover up the crime until he was turned in by an acquaintance days later.

But since Mr. Plummer fled the scene, he avoided the possibility of more serious charges. He was sentenced to two to six years in prison, instead of the 15 years in prison he could have faced on upgraded charges.

“We shouldn’t have a penalty system that provides an incentive to people to leave the scene of an accident,” said Southampton Assemblyman Fred Thiele.

Mr. Wayte was just one of several recent victims of hit-and-run accidents across the North Fork.

One week after Mr. Plummer was sentenced in 2013, young Riverhead mother Kristina Tfelt was struck and killed by a car on Route 58.

The driver of that car also fled the scene, this time on foot. That man remains at large and Riverhead and county police have offered up to $5,000 for information leading to the suspect’s arrest.

A Riverhead man was also struck and seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident in 2013 and this January, a Jamesport jogger was killed on Main Road. Police now suspect that man’s death was caused by a hit-and-run driver who left the jogger lying in the street.

Mr. Henessey said he’s heard indications his bill stands a chance of being passed, despite some opposition from within the Assembly, who oppose the bills because they don’t believe upping penalties would have much of an effect.

“There’s members of the institution that have long-standing status here,” he said. “They have a longstanding philosophy to not increase penalties to deter behavior.”

Yet he cites seatbelt rules and texting while driving laws that he said prove punishment can serve as a deterrent.

“Now the people see fleeing the scene as a choice,” Mr. Henessey said. “We need to change that.”

psquire@timesreview.com

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