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Suffolk DA creates vehicular crimes unit

Suffolk County District attorney Thomas Spota in his

Suffolk County District attorney Thomas Spota in his Hauppauge office. (Dec. 16, 2011) Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota has established a vehicular crimes unit, largely in response to the growing number of people driving under the influence of prescription drugs.

The unit has three prosecutors, headed by Assistant District Attorney Patricia Brosco, and is focusing on vehicular homicide and automobile-related manslaughter cases, Spota said. As with homicides, prosecutors in this unit will respond to crime scenes to help police investigate and bring the appropriate charges, he said.

"The cases are becoming more complex," Spota said. "Being at the crime scene gives a prosecutor a distinct advantage" down the road in court.

Such cases often rely on accident reconstructions, he said.

And an increasing use of prescription drugs -- sometimes several at once and sometimes in combination with alcohol -- that impair drivers make the cases more difficult, said Chief Assistant District Attorney Emily Constant. That presents a legal challenge in proving impairment, she said.

Spota said the number of such investigations has nearly doubled in the past five years. There were 366 vehicular crimes relying on blood evidence in 2006, and 699 in 2011, said Spota's spokesman, Robert Clifford.

Statewide, driving while intoxicated by alcohol has declined by 19.3 percent in that period, according to Department of Criminal Justice Services statistics. But cases involving impairment by drugs have gone in the other direction, rising by 18.6 percent.

Suffolk's unit, composed of reassigned personnel, will be considerably smaller than the Vehicular Crimes Bureau in Nassau, where District Attorney Kathleen Rice has made driving while intoxicated a particular focus since taking office. That bureau has 15 prosecutors and two collision reconstruction experts, said its chief, Assistant District Attorney Maureen McCormick.

Nassau's bureau handles all vehicular crimes, from misdemeanor DWIs to aggravated vehicular homicide, McCormick said. She agreed with Spota's observation that driving while drugged cases are on the rise.

"We need a greater recognition of it," she said, adding that it's not always obvious at a crash scene if a driver is on prescription drugs. Drunken drivers have a particular odor on their breath and other distinctive characteristics. Drivers impaired by prescription drugs are more difficult to detect, she said.

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