Suffolk DA, families calling for harsher hit-and-run penalties

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01/20/2015 4:00 PM |
Melanie Stafford speaks at a press conference in Hauppauge Tuesday with Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota (far right), state Senator John Flanagan (second from right) and family members of hit-and-run victims. Ms. Stafford's uncle was killed in 2012 while crossing the street in downtown Riverhead. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

Melanie Stafford speaks at a press conference in Hauppauge Tuesday with Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota (far right), state Senator John Flanagan (second from right) and family members of hit-and-run victims. Ms. Stafford’s uncle was killed in 2012 while crossing the street in downtown Riverhead. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and the families of hit-and-run victims are calling on state lawmakers to increase penalties for those convicted of fleeing the scene of a fatal accident.

Mr. Spota and members of several families, including a relative of Scott Wayte — the Brookhaven man who was struck and killed in 2012 while crossing East Main Street in downtown Riverhead — held a press conference in Hauppauge Tuesday, saying they want the state to increase the maxiumn sentence for fatal hit-and-run crimes from seven years to 15 years in prison. 

They’re also requesting that aggravated vehicular homicides, which are currently considered nonviolent felonies, be upgraded to violent felony charges.

Citing an “epidemic” of hit-and-runs, authorities say current laws incentivize drivers who are under the influence to flee accidents that seriously injure or kill, because the charges for running from a fatal crash are less severe than those faced by drivers who stay.

There have been 58 serious or fatal hit-and-run incidents in Suffolk County in the last three years, Mr. Spota said, and tougher penalties are needed to deter future accidents — and keep offenders off the road longer.

“If you burglarize a home in the middle of the night, don’t hurt anybody and take a TV,” Mr. Spota explained, “you get more time in jail than you’d get for aggravated vehicular homicide crimes.”

Last year, the state Senate approved legislation calling for stiffer penalties. A last-minute bill addressing the same issue was also pushed through the Assembly, but the two bills couldn’t be reconciled before the legislative session ended.

North Fork Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill last year to increase hit-and-run penalties to up to 15 years in prison. This year, he said, he’s confident both houses will create a comprehensive bill for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign.

A lack of public transportation is one underlying cause for drunk driving and hit-and-run accidents on Long Island, he said.

Mr. Palumbo also said he believes the leadership of the Democrat-controlled Assembly has contributed to a delay in implementing stiffer penalties by focusing instead on rehabilitation and social programs for offenders.

This year could be different, he said, because more lawmakers from both parties are working together to draft stricter laws.

“It’s reaching crisis level on Long Island,” Mr. Palumbo said of hit-and-run accidents. “It’s a loophole in the law we need to close immediately.”

The drivers in most of the area’s recent fatal hit-and-runs — including the crash that killed Jamesport father James Callaghan last January — haven’t been caught.

The man who killed Mr. Wayte — Joseph Plummer, a convicted felon from Middle Island — was sentenced in July 2013 to two to six years in prison after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident involving the death of a pedestrian.

According to the New York State Division of Parole website, he was denied parole on Aug. 5, 2014. His conditional release date is Dec. 30, 2016, and the longest he’ll stay in prison is until Dec. 30, 2018.

Mr. Wayte’s niece, Melanie Stafford of Blue Point, attended Tuesday’s press conference and said she’ll continue to rally support until the current laws are changed.

“[Mr. Plummer is] as guilty as someone can be of killing somebody and having absolutely no remorse for what he did by choosing to drive away at that time,” Ms. Stafford said. “He will be walking among us in a year and a half or so and has the potential to do the same thing to somebody else’s family.”

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