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AN UNACCEPTABLE LOOPHOLE

Sometimes, when legislators make the case for a change in law, they are reduced to dealing with abstractions -- arguing the potential impact of environmental regulations, for example, or explaining the long-term benefits of a tax cut on any of a dozen demographic groups.

Not so the effort to toughen the law on leaving the scene of a fatal accident. No abstractions are needed in this argument, not when lawmakers can point to the broken body of Paul Amico, a Buffalo man who was struck by a car in April and left to die.

Amico was killed April 24 when a car ran into him on Amherst Street, near Meadow Road. Instead of stopping, Rosalie M. Gracey drove off and, in doing so, the Hamburg woman may have done herself a favor. That's because New York law rewards drunks who speed away from fatal accidents. That's the intolerable circumstance Senate and Assembly bills seek to change.

The problem is this: An intoxicated driver convicted of vehicular manslaughter, a D felony, faces a prison term of up to seven years. But someone who drives off and sobers up before being arrested, will be charged only with an E felony, good for no more than four years in a county jail -- and usually much less, given the realities of parole, plea bargains and prison crowding.

Gracey, who pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a serious-injury accident, is expected to draw a jail term of less than a year, hardly proportionate to the penalty she imposed on Amico.

What's more, this is not an isolated incident. Former attorney Drew Tidwell escaped prosecution on drunken-driving or vehicular manslaughter charges in 1999 because he left the scene of a fatal Amherst car-bicycle accident that killed Donald Fruehauf. Tidwell accepted a plea-bargain deal on a charge of leaving the scene of an accident, which carries a far lesser penalty.

Measures introduced in the Senate and Assembly would raise the penalty for leaving the scene of an accident, but while the Senate passed its bill unanimously, prospects in the Assembly appear dim. The best explanation for the resistance is the issue of proportionality: It makes no sense to equate in law the crimes of leaving the scene of an accident and of killing someone while intoxicated. One is clearly worse than the other.

It's not a preposterous concern, but the heart of that problem lies not in the effort to raise the penalty for leaving the scene of a crime, but in the state's limp vehicular homicide statute. New York's DWI laws are weak in general, but none is worse than a law that allows a drunk to kill a carload of innocent people and serve no more than seven years in prison.

The Senate has passed and the Assembly has proposed a package of strong DWI legislation dealing with the vehicular homicide law and several other issues. That's good news, but the Assembly should also get behind the push to make people think twice before leaving the scene of a serious accident. Whatever quirks may be associated with this effort, they pale in comparison to a law that favors the needs of drunk drivers over those of Paul Amico, Donald Fruehauf and many others like them.

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