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

07/10/13 2:17pm
07/10/2013 2:17 PM
Plummer

JAMES CARBONE/NEWSDAY POOL |  Joseph Plummer listens to victim impact statements at his sentencing Wednesday in Suffolk County criminal court.

The sister of a Brookhaven man killed in a hit-and-run on East Main Street last December stood in a Suffolk County courtroom Wednesday morning — a few feet from the driver who admitted to fleeing the scene of the crash — and described her family’s pain.

PLummer family

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Family members of hit-and-run victim Scott Wayte walk out of court moments after Joseph Plummer was sentenced to two to six years in prison.

Wendy Worytko talked about the victim’s two daughters who have suffered the loss of a father, and about the kind of devoted family man Scott Wayte was.

“How can you live with yourself?” she asked Joseph Plummer, the driver in the hit-and-run now clad in a dark green jumpsuit, his hands cuffed behind his back. “You are despicable.”

Ms. Worytko told the court she prefers not to use the word “hate.”

“Except for you, Joseph Plummer,” she said. “I hate you.”

More than a dozen family members and friends of Mr. Wayte packed into the Suffolk County criminal courtroom to voice their disgust with Mr. Plummer as he was sentenced to two to six years in prison for driving away from the Dec. 28 accident and attempting to cover up the crime.

His sentence was the maximum allowed under the law.

Family members and prosecutors said the case is a clear example of why the law should be changed to allow for tougher punishments against hit-and-run drivers.

“It was a singular act of thoughtlessness, a singular act of heinousness,” said Suffolk County Judge Mark Cohen during sentencing.

Judge Cohen he told Mr. Plummer the sentence will “hopefully allow you to contemplate what you’ve done.”

But Suffolk County assistant district attorney Al Croce said Mr. Plummer deserved a much more harsh sentence for his crime.

“He has shown no remorse throughout the proceedings,” Mr. Croce said. “He doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions.”

Mr. Croce added that Mr. Plummer should be “removed from society for as long as possible.”

Mr. Croce said the DA’s office believes Mr. Plummer had been drinking before the accident, but since he didn’t stop at the scene of the crash and was arrested days after attempted to cover up the crime, prosecutors could not get enough evidence to prove he was drunk.

“This is a classic example of the need for stronger legislation,” he said.

After the sentencing, District Attorney Thomas Spota and family members urged the New York State Assembly to pass a bill that would allow prosecutors to charge hit-and-run drivers with more serious offenses.

The bill, which was passed by the state senate in February, has stalled in the lower house of the Legislature.

Mr. Spota said had the bill been in effect, Mr. Plummer could have been sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

“We have asked and asked and asked the Assembly to do whatever they possibly could to pass this legislation as soon as possible,” Mr. Spota said. “[Mr. Plummer] deserves to have at least been charged with manslaughter and he would have been doing 15 years in jail.”

Mr. Spota said the DA’s office is currently prosecuting other cases with similar circumstances where hit-and-run drivers could get off easy as well.

“It’s almost slaughter on the highways these days, and this is legislation that should have been passed a long long time ago,” Mr. Spota said.

Mr. Plummer, 49, of Middle Island — a two-time convicted felon with six more misdemeanor convictions to his name — had pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a motor vehicle accident involving the death of a pedestrian, a class “D” felony, last month.

Mr. Wayte was celebrating his 50th birthday with family on Dec. 28 when he was struck by Mr. Plummer while trying to cross East Main Street.

Prosecutors said Mr. Plummer was traveling home from working on a pool in Aquebogue at the time of the incident and had been drinking vodka on the day of the crash since morning from a Poland Spring water bottle.

Because he wasn’t apprehended until several days later, authorities couldn’t prove he was drunk at the time of the crash,

Mr. Wayte was knocked into the opposite lane by Mr. Plummer’s car, where he was struck by a second car. While the driver of the second vehicle stopped to help Mr. Wayte, Mr. Plummer fled the scene and drove 10 miles to a gas station despite severe damage to his car’s windshield.

Mr. Croce said Mr. Plummer used pool lining to hide the damaged car, and noted that even though Mr. Plummer saw news reports detailing the deadly accident, he refused to come forward and tried to dodge responsibility.

During sentencing Mr. Plummer’s attorney, Harmon Lutzer, requested a grace period for his client to “get his affairs in order” before sentencing, but judge Mark Cohen denied it after assistant district attorney Al Croce said Mr. Plummer had failed to appear in court four times before this case.

Lutzer admitted that Mr. Plummer had a drinking and drugs problem and requested he be sentenced to the full two to six years and placed into a treatment program while in prison.

Mr. Plummer made a brief statement to the family, and appeared to tear up as he spoke.

“I’m very sorry to the whole family that this ever happened,” he said. “It wasn’t on purpose, it was an accident.” Mr. Plummer paused to compose himself, but didn’t say anything else.

Mr. Wayte’s daughter, Brooke, spoke at the sentencing and said people had no idea how much her father’s death affected their family.

“What everyone else doesn’t know is that I lost my life as well,” she said while holding back tears. “On that night, I lost my biggest fan and supporter.”

Ms. Wayte said her father’s death “crippled my family,” adding that they are now dealing with financial concerns because Mr. Wayte was the breadwinner for the family.

Ms. Wayte also read a statement from her sister, Alexandra.

“For you to hit my dad and drive away and cover it up shows what kind of man you are,” Ms. Wayte wrote.

Melanie Stafford, who was Mr. Wayte’s niece, said she had little hope that Mr. Plummer would reform his ways.

“There’s nothing I can find on record, nothing, that shows you’ve done any good for your community or family,” she said. “Now you’ve committed the ultimate robbery. You took a life.”

Ms. Stafford noted the irony that Mr. Plummer will spend his 50th birthday in prison and said that she hopes he gets “thrown around like a trash bag on the side of the road” while in prison.

“You are marked as scum for life,” she said. “You’re scum and I hope you rot in hell.”

psquire@timesreview.com