Some of you may have seen the recent news announcement about the truck driver who was sentenced to 6 years in prison because his truck ran into a parked patrol car and killed a DPS officer. I posted a comment about it, but wanted to go deeper into why the truck driver is going to prison, how that differs from the normal outcomes in a traffic accident, and what it says about how our society now views certain driving behaviors.
When an automobile accident happens, usually one of the drivers violated a traffic law in a way that led to the collision. For example, Driver A runs a red light while Driver B is in the intersection on a green light, and the two cars collide. We know that running a red light is a violation of a traffic law (specifically, A.R.S. §28-645). So, Driver A may get a traffic ticket and have to pay a fine.
The traffic violation and accompanying ticket are not usually based on the outcome of the action, only the action itself. For example, Driver A can be issued this citation even if no accident occurred. And it normally does not matter WHY the action was taken. For example, if driver A was simply thinking of something else and failed to see the red light, his ticket is likely to be the same whether the driver he hit (Driver B) was not injured or if he was killed. And, no jail or prison time is normally associated with such violations and their accompanying fines, regardless of the outcome for the other driver.
But, under certain facts, the reason WHY Driver A ran the red light can sometimes matter a great deal. For example, if Driver A ran the light because he was driving under the influence of alcohol, not only will he also be charged with DUI, but, if he caused the death of Driver B, he could also face negligent homicide or manslaughter charges, and those can send him to prison. So, even though the underlying traffic law that led to the collision was running a red light, and that alone would not subject Driver A to a prison sentence (criminal law usually requires an “intent” to do an act, not just a mistake or failure), if he ran the red light because he was drunk, and running the red light caused Driver B’s death, he could go to prison. Our society looks at those facts differently because a drunk driver has already made some decisions intentionally putting the public at risk. So, even if the violation is simply “negligent” or unintentional, the decision to drive under those conditions was purposeful or intentional and, therefore, “criminal.” And, as we know, criminal behavior can carry prison time.
So, applying this observation to the news story about the truck driver who killed the officer, we can see a significant change in the law. The traffic law that the truck driver violated was likely A.R.S. §701, which simply requires a driver to control the speed of his vehicle to avoid a collision. He violated this law, but that would normally result in a fine, and an insurance claim and civil lawsuit—even though the officer was killed. There was no evidence that the truck driver was under the influence of alcohol or anything else, which would trigger potential manslaughter or negligent homicide charges and accompanying prison time. But there was evidence that he was looking at pictures on his phone when he veered off the road and hit the patrol car. So, even though the truck driver did not choose to drink and drive, he did choose to look at his phone and drive. That intentional act raised his culpability to a criminal level, and a criminal-level punishment. The six year prison sentence tells us that the criminal justice system looked at his choice to distract himself by looking at his phone as an intentional act similar to choosing to drink and then drive! That, in my opinion, marks a significant change in how our society now views driving while distracted by your phone, which, contrary to what you may hear, is not actually a separate traffic violation—yet. Specifically, if a driver causes serious harm or death because he or she was distracted by their phone, it may be treated as a criminal matter, and carry a prison sentence, just like DUI can. If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact Attorney Kevin Fine with Davis Miles McGuire Gardner at (480) 733-6800 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.