When Tragic Accidents Also Are Crimes

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The fields of the Capital Area Soccer League were a sea of blue again last night.  Players of all ages shelved their regulation orange jerseys and wore blue—Laura Yost’s favorite color—instead. They wore blue last week too.  Last week’s blue was to support fellow soccer player Laura, who was hospitalized after she was critically injured in a car accident on her way to school.  Sadly, last night’s blue was to honor her memory.  Fifteen-year-old Laura died early Tuesday morning.

Laura, a sophomore at Panther Creek High School in Cary, rode in the back seat of her friend Spencer Saunders’ car last Tuesday.  Her older brother Ryan rode in the front passenger seat.  Spencer was turning left off of Highway 55 onto McCrimmon Parkway in Cary when a dump truck traveling in the other direction crashed into the passenger side of his vehicle.  Reports indicate that the accident was Spencer’s fault as he failed to yield to the oncoming dump truck when turning left as required by G.S. 20-155(b). No charges have yet been filed in the case, but police reportedly have talked to the district attorney about charging Spencer.

Failing to yield when turning left is an infraction, not a crime.  The maximum penalty is $100.  A person cited for this offense may pay a $35 fine and court costs and resolve the charge without having to appear in court.  But now that Laura has died, Spencer might be charged with a more serious offense—misdemeanor death by vehicle—a Class A1 misdemeanor, for which a first-time offender could receive up to 60 days imprisonment.  Because Spencer is 16, he may be charged with this crime and tried as an adult.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard district court judges say that misdemeanor death by vehicle is among the most difficult misdemeanor crimes to sentence. By its very definition, the crime involves a violation of any State traffic law or local traffic ordinance, other than impaired driving, that causes the death of another.  On one side of the scale, there often rests a defendant with no criminal intent. On the other, there is a lost life.  Sometimes the victim’s family views a harsh sentence as necessary to justice.  Sometimes the victim’s family sees the ends of justice differently.  I’ve never been a prosecutor, so I don’t know how much the initial charging decision is based on the wishes of family members.  In my time as an assistant federal public defender, I learned that there were rules of thumb about certain degrees of loss.  If a client was alleged to have fraudulently obtained money that exceeded a certain amount, pleas for reduced charges or deferred prosecution were rebuffed, regardless of the client’s youth, lack of criminal history, or other mitigating circumstances.  It may be the same for district attorneys when a life is lost as a result of traffic violations that otherwise would not even cross the threshold of criminal culpability.  But perhaps the lines are not so clearly drawn.

One might expect that regardless of what charges may come, Spencer Saunders already is suffering mightily. He has expressed profound remorse in posts to his Twitter account that have been reprinted in the news. Spencer is 16. He is an inexperienced driver. He made a mistake that turned out to be fatal for his friend. Should criminal charges follow?

The prospect of criminal charges against Spencer would be no different under the raise the age bill that passed the NC House last session.  While House Bill 725, if enacted, would have expanded juvenile jurisdiction to 17 year olds in its first year and 18 year olds in its second, it would have done so only for misdemeanors and infractions other than violations of the state’s motor vehicle laws.

Cary Police Lieutenant Steve Wilkins said that they were going to allow the “dust [to] settle” with the families before proceeding with any charges.  So we don’t yet know the State’s view of what justice requires in this tragic case.

9 comments on “When Tragic Accidents Also Are Crimes

  1. This is one of the worst statutes….basicly a strict liability crime. I have handled two such charges as a defense attorney….even the judges involved thought the statute was just wrong.

  2. There is no easy answer to this. With most serious crimes, prosecutors look primarily at the conduct of the alleged perpetrator, in the context of any prior criminal activity. That is because a prosecutor’s primary job is to protect the public from criminals. However, with motor vehicle offenses, the results of the conduct often play a disproportionate role. In other words, if that dump truck had successfully avoided the car, and a police officer witnessed the incident, the driver who failed to yield would have received only a ticket. The conduct of that driver would have been the same in either case. A prosecutor should not be overly swayed by the result because the defendant is a human being also, and is part of the public that the prosecutor is seeking to protect. If the prosecutor is convinced that the young driver’s mistake was primarily the result of inexperience, rather than a reckless disregard for human life and for the law, she or he should treat the young driver with the empathy and compassion that he deserves.

  3. Killing someone because of your negligent driving is far worse than rolling up to a DWI checkpoint and blowing a .09. It makes sense that actually doing the harm (causing a life-ending wreck) should be punished worse than merely increasing the risk of the harm (dwi), yet a DWI is usually punished more harshly than the negligent killing. I agree that it shouldn’t be a felony but a misdemeanor for negligently killing someone does not seem unreasonable.

    Intent certainly matters, but so does the harm done.

    • If the person you shoot at dies, you may be charged with murder. But if your aim is off, then it’s only attempted murder….
      Identical intent, but the law seems to reward incompetence….

    • You are being negligent if you are drinking and driving. Rolling up and blowing a .09 might save you from hitting someone that you don’t see because you are being negligent by getting in your car when you could get someone to pick you up, a taxi or Urber.

  4. One assumes that Spencer is guilty. If not Spencer, then Middleton. We all want to pin in on the driver. But we ignore the third party who actively involves in every crash. The NCDOT. The NCDOT sets up drivers experiencing specific traffic circumstances to fail, even unto death. When I read in the accident report that this crash included a yellow light, a left turn lane and a commercial truck driver, I knew this was the NCDOT’s fault. You see:

    1. The NCDOT never gives enough yellow light duration to a commercial truck driver. The NCDOT creates a type 1 dilemma zone for all commercial vehicles. If the truck so happens to be in this zone upstream from the intersection when the light turns yellow, the NCDOT will force him to run a red light. Commercial drivers need about 2.5 – 3.0 more seconds on a 50 mph to decelerate to a stop than a passenger car. Weight, jackknifing, air brake lag time, must be considered but the NCDOT purposefully ignores these requirements. You will find that the NCDMV’s CDL manual in conflict with the NCDOT’s yellow light spec.

    2. By NCGS 136-30, the NCDOT is required to comply with the MUTCD “standards.” The NCDOT violates the MUTCD by flipping the length of the yellow change interval during the course of a signal cycle. Spencer may see 3.5 seconds, or 5.2 seconds of yellow depending when he arrives at the intersection. MUTCD 4D.29-06.

    3. The math formula the NCDOT uses to set yellow light durations demands one of two choices from the driver: 1. Stop, 2. Proceed at full speed. There are no in-between. While Middleton saw two cars precede Spencer into the intersection, he did not slow down for them. The nature of the yellow light forbids a driver to slow down who intends to enter the intersection. Slowing down extends the time to reach the intersection and the driver will inadvertently run a red light. While Middleton would normally slow down for hazards like that, he didn’t because of fear of running a red light.

    3.

    2. Fa

  5. Motor cycle accident… what if you suspect that the driver did harm to the victim following the accident that led to the victims death ? Using the accident as a excuse for the victims injuries. What proof would there need to be to prove this. Driver gave 4 statements as to what happened, victim injuries were not consistent with the statements given. Police did not arrive on the scene until after both driver and victim were taken to the hospital but gave a report inconsistent to statements given by driver. Driver received only minor injuries, victim had massive injuries to abdominal area that led to her death. Driver called son before calling 911. Driver had no endorsement to drive a motor cycle, the bike belonged to his son, no insurance on the bike, plates belonged to another bike. Driver was known to be abusive to victim and driver very mean to family following accident, refusing to give family belongings of victim. etc. Driver charges with mis. death by motor vehicle. Obtained EMS report and first responder report but non even mentioned the scene of the accident in regards to victims where abouts, possible statements made by victim, where the bike was in relationship to the victim etc. This sounds like it should be more than death by motor vehicle Driver was 57 years old and victim was 47 years old. By no means children. and old enough to know better. Any feed back to this post would be appreciated.

  6. In response to Mr. Ceccarelli’s comments, I throw out this devil’s advocate question.

    Suppose Mr. Middleton did brake his dump truck upon seeing the first waiting left turning car execute its turn but still hit Mr. Saunders’ car with Ms. Yost inside. Having slowed down sooner, Mr. Middleton ended up entering against the red light, although coming to a stop well before exiting the intersection and producing a much less severe crash.

    Who’s at fault now?

  7. To Allan,

    Had Mr. Middleton slowed down earlier, he would have missed Mr. Saunder’s car altogether. In all cases, Mr. Middleton enters the intersection on a red light.

    Slowing down earlier makes Middleton enter the intersection later into the red, possibly after the all-red clearance interval is over and cross-traffic gets the right-of-way. I have seen this scenario play out at a different intersection in Raleigh.

    The yellow light does not last long enough to accommodate “avoidance” maneuvers. That is to say that the yellow light does not last long for Mr. Middleton to slow down for hazards in front of him. The length of the yellow light encourages the driver, once too close to stop comfortably, to continue at full speed and/or beat the light. The mandate for the driver to not slow down and instead to beat the light is actually explicitly written into the engineering specs.

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