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Spota To Appeal After Judge Drops Charges Against Limo Driver In Fatal LI Crash

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota is going to appeal after a judge dropped criminal charges against a limousine driver in a crash in Long Island wine country that killed four women and injured four others last summer.

Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho ruled Wednesday that an indictment charging driver Carlos Pino was flawed because of improper grand jury testimony. Prosecutors contended the grand jury testimony was proper, but the judge disagreed.

Pino had been awaiting trial on criminally negligent homicide and other charges.

"Pino's actions were far from just careless," Spota said. "Pino, an experienced professional limousine driver carrying eight passengers, turned blindly into a roadway when his view was completely blocked by another car.  Pino was driving a vehicle he knew or should have known could never make a safe U-turn under the circumstances.  Justice Camacho's decision appears to ignore this critical and distinguishing fact.  Simply because others made the turn without harm did not make doing so safe or lawful when done blindly as Pino did."

As CBS2's Jennifer McLogan reported, family members were shaken, angry, and numb as they left court. Completely stunned by the judge's decision to excuse all charges -- throwing out counts of criminally negligent homicide, misdemeanor assault, reckless driving, and traffic violations.

"The judge points out in his decision there is no evidence Mr. Pino was on the phone, on drugs, that he was distracted, nothing. In other words, he made a mistake," attorney Leonard Lato said.

Lato is advising his client not to comment publicly on the decision, 1010 WINS' Carol D'Auria reported.

"He doesn't want to say anything now because he is still a defendant in the civil case," Lato, told WCBS 880's Sophia Hall. "And what could he say? Of course he's going to be relieved that the criminal case is over, but his life has been changed, too."

Authorities say the limousine driver was trying to make a U-turn on Route 48 in Cutchogue after leaving a nearby winery when a pickup truck broadsided the limo on July 18, 2015.

Brittney Schulman, 23, of Smithtown; Lauren Baruch, 24, of Smithtown; Stephanie Belli, 23, of Kings Park; and Amy Grabina, 23, of Commack, were killed. Four other women in the limo survived.

"He should have seen the oncoming car... he did not," Lato said. "Is there civil liability? Yes. Was it a crime? No."

In issuing his decision Justice Camacho told the families that he was sorry for his loss.

"Part of my job is to check my emotions at the door," he said, "I have agonized over this decision more than any other."

A grieving mother cried out "you are wrong."

But Lato argued that the judge upheld the law. It was an unintentional accident. The driver failed to see the pickup truck barrelling down the road.

"To have criminal liability what is required under New York law in fact is some sort of moral blameworthiness, an awareness that what you are doing is dangerous or wrong," Lato said.

He said the DA misled the families into believing a crime had been committed when it was operator error. Lato said the indictment was based on a flawed grand jury presentation.

"There is no evidence that the grand jurors were confused by the thorough, fair and impartial legal instructions given to them by prosecutors," Spota added. "The grand jury with the benefit of hearing the testimony of numerous witnesses, including from crash reconstruction experts, reached their decision.  The grand jury found that Pino's heedlessly executed U-turn was serious enough to "constitute conduct that should be condemned" by an indictment. The People will certainly appeal the Court's decision."

The pickup driver, Steven Romeo, was arrested on drunken driving charges but prosecutors later determined he was not criminally responsible for the fatal crash.

(TM and © Copyright 2016 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2016 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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