SCHOHARIE, N.Y. (NEWS10) — A Schoharie County Court judge has rejected a plea deal for Nauman Hussain, the operator of the limo company involved in the 2018 Schoharie limo crash that killed 20 people. Hussain was set to get five years probation in the plea deal, but the judge wants 1.3 to 4 years in prison instead.

Hussain was set to be formally sentenced to five years of probation Wednesday morning after a plea was struck in September of 2021. Judge Peter Lynch, who took over the case after the previous judge, George Bartlett IIII retired, says the plea deal was made by Bartlett, not he and that “I am not going to abide by the plea agreement”, which elicited cheers from the gallery where many of the victims’ families were sitting.

Five victim impact statements were read in court after the plea was vacated. Hussain reportedly said nothing in regard to the statements. Judge Lynch then proceeded to say, “I’m going to give the defense an opportunity to think about the next step they would like to take in this proceeding.” After the judge rejected the plea deal for Hussain, his defense team’s next steps were to vacate their client’s plea; meaning the 20 count indictment against Hussain is reinstated and now will head to trial.

The rejection caught the defense attorneys by surprise according to Hussain’s lead defense Chad Seigel. “Unheard of, absolutely unheard of. I’m sure you could tell from our reaction in the courtroom, we were shocked. It took a very long time to get to this stage today after extensive discussions with the prosecution and with the judge who was very intimately familiar with the facts of this case.”

Judge Lynch suggested Hussain spend between 16 months to four years behind bars. In his remarks, the judge focused on Hussain’s alleged removal of a New York State Department of Transportation sticker stating the limo was removed from service by state inspectors.

“If one consciously removes a sticker from a vehicle that was placed on the vehicle by the authorities, that it was out of service, that action is consistent of being aware of and consciously disregarding the risks,” explained the judge.

According Judge Lynch, Hussain’s DNA was found on the sticker which was inside his vehicle. Hussain’s defense attorneys fired back saying that one provision in the plea agreement, based around the removal of the sticker, is being “taken out of context”. “Focusing on a sticker that was reportedly removed saying that shows that this was a deliberate act; that Mr. Hussain just disregarded this gross, unjustifiable risk,” explained Seigel. “But, as we have pointed out that sticker had nothing to do with the brakes. Absolutely nothing.”

Hussain is accused of 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide for not properly maintaining the Ford Excursion limousine. The limo, according to court documents, suffered from “catastrophic brake failure” the night of October 6, 2018.

In September 2021, Hussain pleaded guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide. He was initially sentenced to two years of interim probation and 1,000 hours of community service.

After completing the two years of interim probation, Hussain was supposed to be formally sentenced to five years probation, which the judge rejected on Wednesday. Hussain is also prohibited from owning, operating, or working for any commercial transportation business.

Hussain’s attorneys blame Mavis Discount Tire, where the vehicle was serviced, for failing to properly do brake work on the limo. “Again the judge talks about responsibility, we attempted to have Mr. Hussain take responsibility to a certain point and actually one of the victim’s families brought it up in court today is where is the accountability for anybody else in this case? This is a very frustrating moment for us and we do intend to go to trial.” 

A hearing has been set for September 14. There a formal trial date will be decided upon. The judge has ordered Hussain to wear a GPS monitor for the time being. October 6 marks four years since those 20 people were killed in one of the deadliest transportation accidents in recent decades in the United States.

The legacy of the crash reverberated throughout the region and the country. It prompted lawmakers to draft new legislation to reform safety measures in public transportation, private vehicles, and commercial service industry vehicles. These reforms—on the statewide and national level—have included new guidance for inspections and added requirements for wearing seatbelts.