ALBANY — A judge’s attorney is arguing his client exercised discretion by tossing out a previously negotiated plea agreement that avoided jail time for the operator of the limousine company involved in the fatal 2018 Schoharie crash, in response to a lawsuit seeking to reinstate the plea deal.
Attorneys for Nauman Hussain, who operated Prestige Limousine, last month filed a proceeding in the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court seeking to overturn Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch’s surprise decision at what was expected to be a final sentencing in August.
Twenty people were killed in the Oct. 6, 2018 crash.
The petition seeks to have Husain’s agreement and the negotiated sentencing terms reinstated, allowing him to plead guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide with a recommended sentence of five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
Attorney Angela Kelley, representing Lynch, in a response filed with the court on Thursday argued the judge acted within his authority when he rejected the plea deal that he found to be “fundamentally flawed.” She contends Hussain’s petition must be denied.
“If, in the exercise of the court’s inherent discretion to determine an appropriate sentence, it determines the promised sentence is unlawful or feels it is no longer appropriate, the court is well within its rights to refuse to impose the promised sentence, and is in fact required to so refuse,” Kelley stated in the court filing.
The plea agreement had been accepted by former Justice George Bartlett in September 2021. Lynch, who was assigned the case after Bartlett retired, in August gave Hussain the choice of withdrawing his guilty plea or accepting a 1⅓-to- four-year prison sentence.
The plea was withdrawn and Hussain was set to stand trial on May 1 on the criminally negligent homicide counts and 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter with which he was originally charged.
The lawsuit filed last month by attorney Lee Kindlon, on Hussain’s behalf, claims Lynch exceeded his authority by rejecting the plea bargain and requests a stay of the criminal prosecution until the matter is decided.
In rejecting the plea, Lynch argued Hussain’s alleged removal of a state Department of Transportation out-of-service sticker from the limo driven during the crash that killed 20 people showed that he knew and disregarded the risk of sending the vehicle out.
A group of 17 friends and family, mostly from Amsterdam, hired the limo to drive them to a birthday celebration in Cooperstown. All 17 passengers, the limo driver, and two bystanders in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store were killed at the intersection of routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie when the vehicle went out of control and crashed. Police concluded the limo suffered catastrophic brake failure that led to the crash.
The fact had been “summarily dismissed as irrelevant” in the plea agreement, according to Kelley, despite the presence of Hussain’s DNA on the DOT sticker ordering the limo to stay off the road. The sticker was removed from the limo days before the crash, according to an investigation.
“It was apparent that [Hussain] was far more a ‘major piece’ of the underlying events charged in the indictment than what had been presented to the court as a justification for the probationary sentence,” Kelley states.
The terms of the plea agreement also did not follow the pre-sentence report from probation officials.
“The Probation Department did not affirmatively recommend a probationary sentence and instead recommended accountability,” Kelley states.
Furthermore, Lynch in August noted that Hussain was placed under probation for two years prior to sentencing as part of the conditions of the plea agreement, which is unlawful. This point was conceded by defense attorneys and prosecutors, according to Kelley.
“[Lynch] was no longer in a position to fulfill important obligations that were a condition precedent to receiving the final probationary sentence. Thus, the court was not required to uphold its end of the bargain when [Hussain] was legally barred from upholding his,” Kelley states.
Rebutting claims that Lynch was compelled to sentence Hussain based on the plea to complete a “purely ministerial” duty, Kelley, citing case law, pointed out that courts maintain discretion to set appropriate punishment until the time of sentencing.
“Under no circumstances is a court’s duty to impose an appropriate sentence upon a criminal conviction ever merely a rubber stamp,” Kelley states.
The response further rejects claims that Lynch made “highly inflammatory” remarks regarding Hussain’s alleged guilt.
“The court was required to place its reasons for rejecting the plea bargain sentence on the record,” Kelley wrote. “Those reasons involved the court’s assessment that the factual justification for the plea agreement misrepresented [Hussain’s] culpability.”
Furthermore, Kelley states that Hussain was not entitled to the presumption of innocence “at that particular moment in time.”
Lynch previously stipulated that any statements made by Hussain at the time of his guilty plea would not be admissible as direct evidence, preventing any potential harm when he is afforded his “right to trial,” Kelley argued.
“The only ‘harm’ suffered by the petitioner is that he is not being afforded the sentence he wants and that is not a harm contemplated by law that entitles him to the requested relief,” Kelley states.
The arguments made in the lawsuit should only be considered in the form of an appeal if Hussain is ultimately convicted at trial, according to Kelley.
Justice John Egan had given Lynch until Monday to respond to Hussain’s petition. A date to consider the matter in the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court has not been scheduled.
Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.