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DRIVE AIMS AT CLOSING LOOPHOLE ON HIT-RUN LAW

Two Republican state lawmakers from Amherst hope to close a loophole in New York law under which drivers fleeing the scene of a traffic fatality can face less severe penalties than if they remain and wait for the authorities.

Sen. Mary Lou Rath and Assemblyman James Hayes said here Wednesday that the gap in the existing law was underscored by last month's fatal accident in Amherst in which a car driven by attorney Drew V. Tidwell struck 68-year-old Donald Fruehauf. Tidwell fled the scene; his attorney went to the police four days later.

"Hit, run and hide is a moral outrage," said Rath.

By leaving the scene, drivers avoid a more serious charge of vehicular manslaughter, which carries a prison term up to seven years for those found guilty of driving drunk in a fatal accident or driving in a dangerous manner. The Rath-Hayes bill would nearly double, to seven years, the maximum prison time for leaving the scene of a fatal accident.

"He knew what would have happened to him if he had stayed at the scene," Rath said of Tidwell. Instead, she added, he went home "to sleep it off."

Tidwell has not said if he was drinking that night, and his recent guilty plea makes no mention of alcohol use. But some people told authorities that they observed Tidwell drinking in the University Inn shortly before the accident.

Four days after the fatal accident, Tidwell's attorney called the district attorney's office to say the car Amherst police were seeking in connection with the crash was
in his client's garage.

Since Tidwell fled the scene and there were no witnesses to the Aug. 17 accident, authorities had no evidence to charge him with vehicular manslaughter. On Sept. 3, Tidwell pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and will serve one year in prison. Had the proposed law been on the books, he would have gotten up to seven years behind bars.

As the law stands now, the best course for drunken drivers involved in fatal accidents and looking to avoid longer prison terms "is to flee the scene of the accident," Hayes said.

Similar measures have been introduced in the Legislature over the years, but they have stalled in the Democratic-led Assembly.

Hayes, who faces an uphill battle to get the bill approved in his house, at least with his GOP name on it as lead sponsor, said the public outcry following the Tidwell incident will "get the focus of the Assembly."

While he said the issue should transcend partisan politics, Hayes took the opportunity to blast the "liberals who control the State Assembly" for being "more interested in protecting the rights of criminals than they are in protecting the rights of victims."

Charles Carrier, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said, "Certainly every effort must be made to prevent motorists from leaving the scene of an accident. We'll take a look at the bill."

Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark said the proposed legislation "would act as a very real deterrent from people leaving the scene of a personal injury accident because what they could face for leaving the scene would in all likelihood be as severe as what they might get if they had stayed and there been an aggravating circumstance, such as intoxication."

Clark said increasing the severity of the penalty would have to include a public information campaign to try to stop what he said is a significant number of hit-and-run incidents. "People would have to know you face very, very severe penalties, perhaps even more than if you stayed," he said.

Tidwell's lawyer dismissed the legislative proposal. Michael S. Taheri said most individuals accused of hit-and-run accidents do not have lengthy criminal records. As a result, he said, it is unlikely a first-time offender would receive much more than a year in prison under the new bill, not the seven years the lawmakers propose. Tidwell, however, previously had been convicted of driving while impaired.

But Rath said the current law punishes those who remain at the scene of an accident to help victims "and rewards others who are selfish, deceptive and uncaring."

If a drunken driver remains at the scene of a fatal accident, it is likely, Rath and Hayes noted, that they would face manslaughter charges with a prison term of up to seven years. But if they leave and are apprehended after the point when police could test for alcohol use, they would only face up to four years.

Under the measure, the hit-and-run penalties would increase by one degree, so that a first offense would become a Class A misdemeanor, while leaving the scene in a fatal accident would become a Class D felony.

Besides the one year in prison, Tidwell, as the result of a felony conviction, will be barred from practicing law.

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