Lawyers for the limo driver charged with the deaths of four young women in a Cutchogue crash last year have argued that Suffolk prosecutors used irrelevant and improper grand jury testimony to get an indictment for a collision that does not amount to a crime.
But prosecutors say their grand jury presentation was proper, as is the indictment charging Carlos Pino, 59, of Old Bethpage with four counts of criminally negligent homicide, misdemeanor assault, reckless driving and traffic violations.
The charges stem from a crash on July 18, 2015. Pino, who was driving a limo with eight women on a winery tour inside, was heading east on Route 48 when he made a U-turn in front of a pickup truck driven by Steven Romeo, 55, of Southold. Romeo was charged with driving while intoxicated, but prosecutors say he was blameless for the crash and couldn’t have avoided it even if he were sober.
The crash killed Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Lauren Baruch, 24, and Brittney Schulman, 23, both of Smithtown.
Pino’s defense has argued that the grand jury testimony and the resulting indictment are so flawed the charges must be dismissed. State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho will decide the issue soon.
In a motion filed last month by defense attorney Leonard Lato of Hauppauge, the defense argued that Pino did nothing more than fail to perceive Romeo’s approaching pickup truck as he made the turn, something that may leave Pino liable in a civil suit but “does not establish the ‘moral blameworthiness’ required to sustain a charge of criminally negligent homicide or a charge of assault.”
Lato wrote that because the law doesn’t support a criminal charge, prosecutors resorted to manipulating the grand jury with improper testimony to get an indictment.
In her reply last month, Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Miller wrote that the testimony was proper and that Pino’s actions fit the crimes with which he is charged.
Lato criticized prosecutors for offering testimony from two people who lived near the crash site, at the intersection of Depot Road, who did not see or hear the crash.
These witnesses and a crash reconstruction expert suggested that it was impossible for any limo driver to make a safe U-turn at that spot. Lato wrote that testimony improperly led the grand jury to conclude that Pino was acting recklessly merely for attempting to make the turn, which was legal.
Prosecutors may have had to do that to overcome the high standard for establishing criminally negligent homicide, set by appellate rulings in earlier cases. In one of those cases, the Court of Appeals dismissed a criminally negligent homicide indictment against James McGrantham, a Brooklyn limo driver who drove the wrong way on the Belt Parkway, made a U-turn and got hit by motorcyclist Adam Armstrong, who was killed.
Miller wrote there are important differences between the McGrantham case and this one. Most important, she wrote, was that McGrantham realized he was in a dangerous situation and needed to get out of it right away.
Pino was simply making a turn, she wrote. And by proceeding into the westbound lanes without making sure there was no oncoming traffic, Pino did more than just “fail to perceive” a problem, she wrote. Pino made a “conscious, risk-creating decision to make what was essentially a ‘blind’ left turn into oncoming traffic,” Miller wrote.
If Camacho lets the indictment stand and Pino is convicted, he faces a maximum of 1 1⁄3 to 4 years in prison.