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Fricano placed on paid leave after crash Judge, who refused blood test, claimed to be on prescription painkiller

State Supreme Court Justice Amy J. Fricano told a Niagara County sheriff's deputy that she had taken a powerful prescription painkiller before crashing her SUV into a utility pole and leaving the scene late Monday afternoon.

The judge twice refused to take a blood test to determine the presence of drugs.

Fricano, 52, has been placed on medical leave several times in the last few years. She injured her back on Dec. 22, 2003, while leaping out of the way of a moving car in the parking lot of Southgate Plaza in West Seneca. She has been on and off the bench with health-related problems ever since.

She is now on administrative leave until the charges filed against her Monday are settled.

Fricano, who was headed to her Town of Lockport home at the time of the crash, was charged with driving while her ability was impaired by drugs, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail. She also was charged with three moving violations: leaving the scene of an accident, moving from a lane unsafely and failure to keep right.

Fricano's vehicle snapped off a utility pole on High Street in the City of Lockport, near Emmet Belknap Middle School, at about 5:25 p.m. Monday. The accident brought down power lines and cut off electrical service to more than 1,600 New York State Electric & Gas Corp. customers. Some customers did not have power restored until midnight that night.

The vehicle left the scene and was later spotted by Deputy Michael P. Dunn on East High Street in the Town of Lockport. It was pulled over at 5:45 p.m. after it turned onto Ernest Road.

According to Dunn's report, Fricano exhibited impaired speech and motor coordination. She failed the one-leg stand and finger-to-nose tests and was taken to the Niagara County Jail.

A Breathalyzer test at the jail showed she had not been drinking, but Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein said Fricano was asked twice to submit to a blood test for the presence of drugs in her system, and she refused.

"At the scene, the judge mentioned that she had health problems, that she was taking hydrocodone. The judge was placed in the patrol car and placed under arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs," the sheriff said.

Beilein said that the judge was not speeding when Dunn saw her vehicle. Although her vehicle was damaged, there were no injuries, and Fricano was alone in the SUV.

Asked if the judge was handcuffed, Beilein said, "That would be the policy."

No drugs were found in the vehicle.

"All we have is her statement that she had taken hydrocodone. With her refusal to submit to the blood test, we won't know [what drugs were in her system]," Beilein said.

Beilein said Fricano was driven to Lockport Town Court to be arraigned by Town Justice Leonard G. Tilney Jr., who released her on her own recognizance. A deputy then took her to her home, and her vehicle was towed.

The impaired driving and failure to keep right charges were filed by the Niagara County Sheriff's Office and are to be heard May 1 before Tilney. The leaving the scene and moving from a lane unsafely counts were filed by the Lockport Police Department and are to be heard the same day by City Judge Thomas M. Dimillo.

Because Fricano refused a blood test, her license was temporarily suspended, pending a hearing Monday in the Niagara County Auto Bureau office in North Tonawanda on whether the suspension should be made official.

Niagara County District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III said that because of his past associations with Fricano, he will apply for appointment of a special prosecutor to handle her case.

But Murphy also noted that both county judges, Sara Sheldon Sperrazza and Peter L. Broderick Sr., might have to recuse themselves from handling the application.

Broderick hired Fricano as a prosecutor in 1990, when he was district attorney, and she was on the staff when Murphy succeeded Broderick in January 1992. Fricano's husband, Robert M. Graff, is Sperrazza's law clerk.

Although she lives in the Town of Lockport, her Lockport police arrest report listed a Buffalo address. Beilein said he had no explanation for the discrepancy.

Justice Sharon S. Townsend, administrative judge for the Eighth Judicial District, said the state Commission on Judicial Conduct will initiate an investigation into the incident.

The judicial commission has the power to punish or remove misbehaving judges.

Townsend said she placed Fricano on administrative leave for as long as it takes for the charges against her to make their way through the courts. Other judges will handle her caseload.

Fricano will continue to draw her $136,900-a-year salary.

Beilein, who has been with the Sheriff's Office for almost 40 years, said he can't recall a judge being arrested in the county before.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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