08/30/13 7:01am
08/30/2013 7:01 AM
PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO  |  Riverhead and state police investigate the scene of the hit-and-run that killed Kristina Tfelt on Route 58 near Woodcrest Avenue in July.

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Riverhead and state police investigate the scene of the hit-and-run that killed Kristina Tfelt on Route 58 near Woodcrest Avenue in July.

About two months ago, Brooke Wayte approached the podium in a Suffolk County courtroom and confronted the driver who struck and killed her father on East Main Street last December and drove off. Then, after making her statement, she sat down in the courtroom and watched as Joseph Plummer — a 49-year-old two-time felon — received his sentence: 2 to 6 years in prison.

For Ms. Wayte, the punishment was “a slap in the face.”

“Two to six years to somebody who has already committed two felonies is nothing,” she told the News-Review this week.

Scott Wayte of Brookhaven was out celebrating his 50th birthday with family on Dec. 28, when he was struck and killed by Mr. Plummer, who fled the scene and later attempted to cover up the crime, authorities said.

Seven months later, and a week after Mr. Plummer’s sentencing, Kristina Tfelt — a young Riverhead mother — was killed when she was hit by a Cadillac on Route 58 in an unrelated hit-and-run crash. The two men who ran from the car that July night have not been caught.

The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office along with local law enforcement, attorneys and victimized families have pushed for harsher punishments for those who leave the scene of serious car accidents, saying the legal system currently lets felons or drunken drivers who run from accidents get off easy. After Mr. Plummer’s arrest, District Attorney Thomas Spota held a press conference, pointing to that case as a prime example of why state lawmakers need to step up and change the law.

EDITORIAL: State must act to fix laws on hit-and-run crashes

Despite support from the New York State Senate, a bill to ramp up penalties for hit-and-run drivers statewide stalled in the Assembly and will have to be taken up again when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

“They were hoping that my dad’s case would push this ahead, and push it into something more, and get [the law] changed so that no one else has to go through what we’re going through now,” Ms. Wayte said. “People are getting away with this every single day, so now if you don’t make the sentence higher, people are just going to keep doing it.“

Though county law enforcement officials could not immediately provide statistics on such incidents locally, Mr. Spota said his office has seen a spike in hit-and-runs in the past few years.

“I don’t know what it is or why it is. Now it’s just — bam! — off to the races,” he said in an interview last week. “Nobody is stopping anymore, it seems, and what’s happening is they’re getting the benefit.”

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | Relatives and friends of Kristina Tfelt gathered for funeral services in Center Moriches.

Another pedestrian was struck and killed early Friday in a hit-and-run accident in Setauket. The driver in that incident remains at large.

As of now, according to the New York State Penal Code, leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death is a class D felony that carries a maximum sentence of 2 to 7 years in prison. Prosecutors say fleeing the scene makes it harder for authorities to bring a driver up on harsher charges.

RELATED: Two days, three arrests for leaving crash scenes

“Take Plummer for an example,” Mr. Spota said. “We know from people at [his] work that he was drinking from the morning until he left work. More than likely he was intoxicated but by the time we got him, two days later, he was sober.”

Mr. Plummer also dodged harsher charges for killing Mr. Wayte because of the section of law the “leaving the scene” felony falls under.

COURTESY PHOTO | Scott Wayte, who was killed in a hit-and-run crash on East Main Street in December while celebrating his 50th birthday with family.

“By leaving the scene, we couldn’t get him for the manslaughter, we couldn’t prove the intoxication and, under vehicle and traffic law, there is no such thing as a prior felony offender,” Mr. Spota said.

Even though Mr. Plummer attempted to cover up his crime by concealing the damaged car under a tarp, prosecutors could charge him only with the Class D felony for leaving the scene. Under the changes proposed in Albany, establishing a C felony for leaving a fatal crash scene, Mr. Plummer would have faced 7 to 15 years in prison.

In response to the rash of fatal car accidents, Suffolk County police established a Vehicular Crime Unit, and Mr. Spota’s office set up a task force of prosecutors who go to hit-and-run incidents and immediately begin working with police.

But Mr. Spota said that until the law is changed, there is little incentive for people to remain at accident scenes if they have something to hide. At Mr. Plummer’s sentencing, Mr. Spota held another press conference, this time with Mr. Wayte’s family, urging the Assembly to pass the bill.

Mr. Spota said he hopes whoever is elected to the now-open North Fork Assembly seat will take up the cause.

“I’ve implored them every single time we’ve had one of these [hit-and-runs] and at the sentencing,” Mr. Spota said. “I just can’t get through.”

Riverhead Town police have said hit-and-runs, both serious and minor, are up across town. Riverhead Lt. David Lessard believes the trend is due to the town’s rising population and drunk or unlicensed drivers who are trying to avoid more serious charges.

“They feel that if they flee the scene at that point they won’t be charged with a charge that could be much more severe,” Lt. Lessard said. “They might feel it’s to their advantage.”

Lt. Lessard said the department supports the DA’s proposal, though he’s not sure how much of a deterrent higher penalties might be.

Hit-and-runs also put a strain on civil cases, said attorney Michael Sabolinski, a former Nassau County prosecutor now working for Schwartzapfel Lawyers of Jericho.

“We have a ton of cases that are hit-and-run related, whether its pedestrians or cars hitting cars,” he said, adding that “the punishment is just not there.”

Mr. Sabolinski said he understands that sometimes accidents are just accidents, but he said fleeing the scene of a fatality should never be incentivized.

“It’s gotta be on par with the most serious vehicular offense,” he said. “It’s gotta be your top of the line. That’s vehicular homicide because that’s a conscious decision.”

But Robert Schalk — a defense lawyer with the Mineola law firm Collins, McDonald & Gann and also a former Nassau County prosecutor — said increased punishments might lead to over-prosecution.

“You have to careful of the people you’re lumping together,” he said.

Mr. Schalk said that while the DA here may have the manpower to review each case to ensure proper punishments, that may not be the case in other parts of the state.

Outreach efforts would play a large role in spreading awareness of the need to remain at accident scenes, he said, noting prior efforts in Nassau County to compel hit-and-run drivers, through plea deals, to speak to students at local high schools about the dangers of driving.

“I think that type of proactive prosecution … is a good way of getting the message out there,” he said.

Yet Mr. Schalk agreed that leaving the scene of a fatal accident should have a higher maximum penalty.

Brooke Wayte said she thinks the bill to increase the penalties stalled because legislators were concerned about harsh punishments for “mistakes.” But Mr. Plummer’s lack of remorse, she said, proves hit-and-runs aren’t mistakes.

“If you make a mistake, you stay, you try to do something,” she said. “If this guy knew he made a mistake, he would have turned himself in. And I firmly believe he would have never turned himself in had he never been caught. No one would have ever known it was him.

“This guy ran off and left my dad there,” she said. “He didn’t care … Now it’s like it didn’t even matter. Like what he did is okay.”

psquire@timesreview.com