New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr, whose district spans the South Fork and further, said this week he is optimistic about the future of legislation that would give stiffer penalties to hit-and-run drivers — so there is greater incentive for a driver under the influence to stay on scene and take responsibility, rather than to flee.
Proposed legislation would increase the maximum sentence for a driver in a fatal hit-and-run to 15 years. The bill upgrades the crime of leaving the scene of an incident resulting in a death from a class D felony to a class C felony. Other types of hit-and-run offenses would also be upgraded.
Southampton Town police and U.S. marshals are still searching for a man alleged to have been behind the wheel when an SUV struck and killed 59-year-old Sister Jackie Walsh in Water Mill in July 2012. Walsh was a Catholic Nun, who was staying in the area on a religious retreat with fellow members of the Sisters of Mercy. The suspect has been identified as 30-year-old Carlos Armando Ixpec-Chitay, who authorities think may have left the country to avoid prosecution.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle, R-Port Jefferson, passed the State Senate on Feb. 21.
Assemblyman Fred Thiele, I-Sag Harbor, who introduced the bill, said on Monday that he expects the assembly to move on the legislation sometime in May or June. "I'm optimistic that this bill will pass," he said, adding that this has been a statewide issue for quite sometime.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota has also spoken out in support of the bill.
Many believe the way the current law is written, drivers who are intoxicated at the time of a fatal accident actually have incentive, Thiele said, to leave the scene because the punishment for fleeing is less than if they were discovered to be driving under the influence.
“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 in a statement. “This bill, rightfully, closes loopholes in the current law.”
The bill was introduced following the death of Erika Hughes, 24, of Mastic, who was killed in a 2011 hit-and-run. The driver, Preston Mimms, 48, was caught nearly 10 months after and pleaded guilty in December 2012, outraging Hughes' family that he was sentenced to one and a third to four years in prison.
The family and friends of John Judge, the 61-year-old pedestrian killed in Amagansett in October, shared similar sentiments when they learned the driver who struck Judge faces 2 to 6 years.
"This man hit my brother, realized no one was watching and kept going," said Judge's sister Peg DiLena, who lives in Florida. "My brother got no plea deal, no second chance — how long was he lying in the street alive and in pain waiting to die? This is an outrage."
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