Editorial: Toughen punishments for hit-and-run

Jennifer Curuchaga holds a picture of her daughter Jennifer Curuchaga holds a picture of her daughter Bryanna Soplin, a 13-year-old girl who was killed in a hit and run accident on Hempstead Turnpike on Sunday, while at her parents' home in Levittown, June 16, 2014. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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After years of trying, it's possible that both chambers of the State Legislature could agree on a bill that would significantly increase penalties against hit-and-run drivers when accidents cause serious injury or death.

As the law stands, drivers who are drunk or drugged and get into an accident have a huge incentive to flee, buying time to sober up while the cops hunt for them. It is all but impossible to prove that a driver was intoxicated once the substances have been fully ingested and processed.

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On Tuesday, retired NYPD Officer Miguel Elardo surrendered to face charges that he left the scene after striking and killing a 13-year-old girl as she crossed Hempstead Turnpike in Levittown just after midnight Sunday. The girl had Down syndrome.

Elardo's attorney said his client contacted police 10 hours after the accident after hearing reports of the incident, and thought he had merely hit a traffic cone. The complaint says there was "substantial damage" to the front of the minivan Elardo was believed to have been driving.

We don't know all the facts, but that's a fairly common pattern and type of explanation after hit-and-run incidents. Elardo has been charged with a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison. But in such a case, if a driver is found to be intoxicated, the charge is aggravated vehicular homicide and the maximum sentence is 25 years.

Senate and Assembly bills would increase the maximum penalty for fleeing such an accident from 7 years to 15. As Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said in a statement last week before the sentencing of Peter Torrillo, convicted in a hit-and-run that killed 27-year-old Erika Strebel, "This profound encouragement to leave the scene must be eliminated. . . . It's time to close this loophole in the state's vehicle and traffic law and give us the tools to ensure that intoxicated drivers are held accountable."

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