East End state legislators are among the cosponsors of a bill introduced in both houses of the New York State Legislature this month that would increase penalties on hit-and-run drivers — a move that the Suffolk County district attorney says is needed to ensure that drivers are held fully accountable when they are eventually caught.
The legislation would upgrade the crime of leaving the scene of an incident resulting in a death from a class D felony, which has a maximum sentence of 7 years, to a class C felony, which has a maximum prison time of 15 years. Other types of hit-and-run offenses would also be upgraded.
Assemblyman Fred Thiele, I-Sag Harbor, is cosponsoring the Assembly bill introduced July 9 and Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle, R-Port Jefferson, is co-sponsoring the corresponding Senate bill, introduced Friday.
A statement from the office of Sen. Lee Zeldin, R-Shirley, another co-sponsor, says that the bill comes in the wake of the death of Erika Hughes, 24, of Mastic, who was killed in a 2011 hit-and-run. The driver, Preston Mimms, 48, was eventually caught and pleaded guilty last month, but Hughes' family is outraged that his sentence is just one and a third to four years in prison, according to CBS New York.
On the South Fork, there have been two fatal hit-and-run crashes in the last year. In Water Mill, Jacqueline Walsh, a Catholic nun on retreat, was killed in July while talking an evening walk and the suspect is still on the loose. Then in October in Amagansett, John Judge, 61, was struck and killed and the driver is, too, yet to be apprehended.
At a press conference earlier this month, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, said those who flee make it impossible to not only help the victim immediately, but to determine if the drivers were intoxicated or impaired by drugs.
The bill is designed to ensure that there is greater punishment for drivers who flee, than for drivers who stay to face the consequences of their actions. According to Zeldin's office, under current law drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol can actually receive less of a punishment if they flee the scene of an accident.
Under some circumstances in which criminal negligence can be proven, a driver may be charged with vehicular manslaughter, which can be a class C or class C felony.
“I have heard and read about too many instances in which individuals have been killed by hit-and-run drivers and it is later determined that the driver was intoxicated," LaValle said. “This bill, rightfully, closes loopholes in the current law.”
Theile shared LaValle's sentiments, stating, "There must be both certain and proportional punishment for those convicted of causing death in a hit-and-run accident. There should not even be a perception that there is an incentive for a drunk or impaired driver to leave the scene of an accident because the penalty for drunk driving is greater than leaving the scene of an accident."