ALBANY — Nauman Hussain, operator of Prestige Limousine, will stand trial for the 2018 Schoharie limo crash that killed 20 people after his appeal seeking the reinstatement of his no-jail plea deal was dismissed by the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in Albany Thursday.
The Appellate Division, in a 4-1 opinion, found state Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch acted within his discretion in August when he tossed out the plea agreement accepted almost a year earlier by Supreme Court Justice George Bartlett before his retirement.
Judges have the authority to depart from plea agreements when there are “compelling reasons requiring a different result,” according to the opinion written by Justice Andrew Ceresia and signed by Justices Elizabeth Garry, Molly Reynolds Fitzgerald and John Egan, Jr.
“If a case contemplating a probationary sentence in the face of an admission of guilt relative to a horrific vehicular accident resulting in 20 violent deaths does not present compelling reasons for a court to reconsider and ultimately insist on a deviation in sentence, then it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to imagine a case that does,” Ceresia wrote.
Justice Sharon Aarons of the Appellate Division in a dissenting opinion argued Lynch overreached and “substituted his own judgment” based on already known facts when he rejected the plea at what was scheduled to be final sentencing.
“What is surprising is that the plea agreement was eviscerated in a fleeting moment. What is troubling are the circumstances of its undoing. It was undone at the last possible instant and contrary to the request by the parties in the criminal proceeding who had tirelessly worked to come to a mutual agreement,” Aarons wrote.
Attorneys for Nauman Hussain in November filed an Article 78 proceeding in the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court seeking to overturn Lynch’s decision. The petition sought to have the deal reinstated allowing Hussain to plead guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide with a sentence of five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
Lynch based his decision on the terms of the plea deal placing Hussain under probation for two years prior to sentencing, which is unlawful. He also argued Hussain’s alleged removal of a state Department of Transportation out-of-service sticker from the limo driven during the crash showed that he knew and disregarded the risk of putting the vehicle on the road.
All 17 passengers, the 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 limo suffered catastrophic brake failure on Oct. 6, 2018.
Lynch in August gave Hussain the option to vacate his plea or accept the sentence the judge was prepared to impose of 1 ⅓-to four-years in prison. Hussain withdrew his plea, leading to the reinstatement of the original charges against him.
With the appeal dismissed, Hussain is scheduled to stand trial on 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide and 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter starting May 1.
Lynch earlier this week rejected a motion by Hussain’s attorneys to delay the trial and subpoena federal officials to disclose details of the FBI probe into the agency’s ties to Hussain’s father, Shahed, the owner of the limo company and a former bureau informant.
This is a developing story that will be updated.
Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.