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Justice refuses to dismiss Fricano charges

Now that a judge has refused a defense motion to dismiss the charges, the stage has been set for a trial in the drugged driving case against State Supreme Court Justice Amy J. Fricano.

Lockport Justice Leonard G. Tilney Jr. denied the defense motion in a decision released Thursday. He ruled that officers had ample probable cause to stop Fricano's sport utility vehicle and arrest her April 9.

At a June 13 hearing, defense attorneys Joel L. Daniels and Peter J. Todoro Jr. had challenged the validity of the arrest.

They argued that Fricano was held in custody too long before being arrested and that Niagara County sheriff's deputies, Lockport police officers and state troopers at the scene had no reason to accuse Fricano of being under the influence of drugs.

Tilney disagreed, writing that Fricano's conduct at the scene and her own statements made it clear that officers had good grounds for the arrest.

Among other things, Fricano told the officers, "I have injuries from a previous accident and take medication. . . . I shouldn't be driving. . . . I was going to take myself off the road."

Although Fricano passed every field sobriety test she was given at the scene of the traffic stop, the officers all testified that her speech was slurred and slow. She later failed other dexterity tests at Niagara County Jail. A breath test for alcohol showed a zero reading, but Fricano twice refused to give a blood sample to be tested for drugs.

Police had been looking for a blue SUV seen leaving the scene of a one-vehicle collision that snapped off a utility pole on High Street in Lockport. Fricano's SUV, with front-end damage, was spotted a few minutes later on East High Street and pulled over on Ernest Road. Deputy Michael P. Dunn reported that Fricano's vehicle crossed the center line twice while he was following it.

Fricano told the officers she had taken some hydrocodone pills, a powerful prescription painkiller, the night before. She has had several medical leaves from her judicial duties since injuring her back jumping out of the way of an oncoming car Dec. 21, 2003, in the parking lot of Southgate Plaza in West Seneca.

After questioning and testing at the scene, Fricano, 52, was handcuffed and placed in a patrol car, although she wasn't formally charged until two hours and 36 minutes later. Besides driving while her ability was impaired by drugs, she was charged with failure to keep right, leaving the scene of an accident and an unsafe lane change.

Special prosecutor Leonard E. Krawczyk Jr., a former Erie County assistant district attorney who was chosen after the Niagara County district attorney's office opted out of the case, called Tilney's ruling "a well-reasoned decision."

Krawczyk cited several reasons for the arrest: "that she had consumed hydrocodone, whenever that might have been; her own statements that she shouldn't have been driving; erratic driving; involvement in an accident."

Daniels did not return calls seeking comment.

Krawczyk said Daniels has told him he has no interest in a plea bargain. "We're heading for a trial," Krawczyk said, adding that he expected it would be held before Tilney alone, not a jury. The defense would make that decision, and Tilney said it has not been conveyed to him.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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