No jail for Nassau state judge's grandson in 3rd DWI

JIm A. Cohen in Newsday, July 27, 2010

Media Source

Updated: Jul 27, 2010 10:03 PM
By SOPHIA CHANG

A former state Supreme Court justice's grandson who twice has pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated, was sentenced to five years' probation after he pleaded guilty last week to a felony DWI charge - a penalty the district attorney's office Tuesday called disappointing.

Christopher Samenga, 34, of Massapequa , was arrested Nov. 14 after he hit another car while driving near Merrick Road and Smith Lane in Seaford , according to the district attorney's office.

His blood-alcohol content registered .19 percent, District Attorney Kathleen Rice 's office said. The legal limit is .08 percent. Nassau police said there were no injuries reported.

Samenga's grandfather is Alfred Samenga Sr., who was appointed to the State Supreme Court in Nassau in 1985 by former Gov. Mario Cuomo after serving in District and County court for two decades. In 1988, he was appointed county accounts commissioner and came out of retirement in 2000 to serve as county attorney until he retired in 2001.

Rice's office said Christopher Samenga had pleaded guilty to felony DWI in 1998 in Nassau County and in 2003 to misdemeanor DWI in New York City. He received probation in both pleas.

Rice said in a statement " we are extremely disappointed in this judge's decision to release a habitual drunk driver back on to the streets."

Acting Supreme Court Justice Meryl Berkowitz sentenced Samenga after he had completed a six-month alcohol treatment program, according to courts spokesman Daniel Bagnuola. Berkowitz's sentence recognized that he was "motivated towards recovery," Bagnuola said.

Berkowitz declined to speak about the sentencing.

"I think she [Berkowitz] recognized the last name and that she knew that his grandfather had been a judge, but I don't think this had much to do with it in terms of the case," said Samenga's lawyer, Peter Gerstenzang of Albany. "He was in rehab for six months while the case was pending, and got excellent reports that he had done very, very well."

Gerstenzang pointed out that Berkowitz promised to send Samenga to jail if he relapsed into alcohol abuse during the probation period.

"She promised him on-the-record that any kind of slip and he's gone," Gerstenzang said. "I think she was trying to balance the good with the bad."

One legal observer said the sentencing seemed "extraordinarily generous" given Samenga's record. "Indeed, his grandfather's influence could continue to resonate in the courts of Nassau County," said Jim Cohen , criminal law professor at Fordham Law School. But he said the discretion of sentencing also allows for redemption. "If you accept the six months' inpatient [rehab] and the glowing reports that he has turned his life around, that's what we should be about," Cohen said.