Gilbert traffic death spurs drive to turn fatal collisions into jail time - East Valley Tribune: News

Gilbert traffic death spurs drive to turn fatal collisions into jail time

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Posted: Saturday, November 12, 2005 4:59 am | Updated: 8:06 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Rick and Rebecca Smith cannot understand how the life of their grown son is worth just $1,000.

In April, 21-year-old Ricky E. Smith died when his prized Pontiac Firebird was T-boned at a Gilbert intersection by a pickup that ran a red light.

In the time it takes a traffic signal to switch from green to yellow to red, the Smiths’ handsome, gentle bear of a son with a fine singing voice was gone.

Since that injury to their hearts, the Smiths say they’ve endured months of insult.

Police and prosecutors determined the pickup’s driver, Angel Pantoja, 31, of Mesa, wasn’t under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and he wasn’t speeding or driving recklessly when he entered the intersection.

Therefore, Pantoja can be punished only with traffic citations. A recent law also gives judges the discretion to tack on a $1,000 fine and suspend a license for 180 days when sentencing drivers who kill.

To the Smiths, that punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Not even close.

"I’m not saying he deserves 20, 30 years in jail. I do not believe that," Rebecca Smith said. "But I do believe you’ve got to make people accountable. You’ve got to, or it’s never going to stop."

In Arizona, only drivers who commit wrongdoing before they maim or kill are jailed. These are the drunken drivers, the robbers evading the cops, the street racers, the road ragers and the selfishly suicidal who steer their cars into oncoming traffic.

GILBERT MAYOR JOINS CAUSE

But the Smiths and others want to imprison inattentive drivers responsible for serious crashes. Fines and points on a license aren’t enough to make motorists slow down and pay attention, they say, so perhaps the threat of a few months behind bars would serve as a better deterrent.

"This is crazy, that you can kill somebody and not go to jail for it," said Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman, who has joined the Smiths’ fight for justice.

In the Gilbert fatality, the red-light runner was an illegal immigrant. But future cases could involve soccer moms, retired schoolteachers or decorated military veterans. Any motorist faulted in a traffic fatality could face jail time regardless of background.

At least two Western states already incarcerate drivers who kill without malice or gross negligence.

In California, the punishment can be a year behind bars. Nevada legislators just passed a law creating the crime of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, which can send bad drivers to jail for six months.

The Nevada law was the work of years of lobbying, punctuated by a string of highly publicized fatal crashes in which prosecutors realized they could only issue citations to the guilty parties.

"Victims always want to know the person who killed their loved ones will be held accountable," Clark County District Attorney David Roger said.

LAWMAKERS LEERY

Might Nevada’s law be used as a template for a new statute in Arizona? If that’s to happen, there’s a long road to drive.

"Sometimes we copy other states’ laws, and we had better laws in place before theirs came into play," said Sen. Marilyn Jarrett, R-Mesa, vice chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

First, the idea of making criminals out of drivers guilty of only a lapse of concentration gives pause to legislators and other transportation experts. Even the concept’s backers have reservations.

"You get some mother with six kids in the back of her car, one of the kids throws a baby bottle at her and she ducks, runs a red light and kills somebody by accident," Berman said. "You want mom to go to prison over just an accident?"

Next, there is concern that establishing a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter law might lead to prosecutors allowing drivers accused of serious crimes, such as killing someone while driving drunk, to plead down.

"You get convictions for the misdemeanor, but you stop getting convictions for the higher offenses," said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

In Nevada, proponents of the new law tried to forbid its use as a "lesser included offense" in cases where there was a fatality in a DUI case. But Kristin Erickson, a chief deputy district attorney for Washoe County, admitted people accused of reckless driving causing death might end up pleading to the misdemeanor.

WILD WEST STATE

Finally, Arizonans seem loath to toughen driving laws because that infringes on the state’s small-government sensibilities, transportation experts said. In other words, just as a man’s home is his castle — a man’s car is his chariot.

"Arizona is perceived as a Wild West, do-what-you-wantto-do state," said Chuck Heeman, state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Added AAA Arizona spokesman David Cowley: "There’s constant weighing of personal responsibility and personal rights against the law." None of this fazes the Smiths. "We’ll get a law passed," Rick Smith said. "And I’d like to name it after my son."

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