Linn County DA won’t prosecute driver who admitted checking his phone before deadly hit-and-run crash

Linn County DA won’t prosecute driver who admitted checking his phone before deadly hit-and-run crash

“The evidence shows that (the driver) diverted his attention away from the road in the moments immediately preceding the crash… he noticed something on his phone, which was on the seat next to him. He then looked down, and it was in this moment that the crash occurred.”
— Alex Olenick, Linn County Deputy DA

A case from Corvallis should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who uses our roads.

As reported today by the Gazette Times, the Linn County District Attorney’s Office has decided to not file charges against the driver who hit and killed 34-year-old Shiloh Sundstrom while he was walking on the side of a road east of Corvallis on the night of November 22nd. The auto user admitted to drinking and looking down at his phone prior to the crash. Despite these facts, the Deputy DA Alex Olenick said the evidence wasn’t enough to prove the driver acted with criminal negligence.

We’ve covered this legal situation numerous times and are aware of the existing limitations in Oregon law around traffic crashes. The threshold to prove intentional and reckless behavior by the driver of a car in situations like this is very high and often — even when it’s clear that a person’s behavior was dangerous and led to the crash — DA’s feel they must decline to prosecute.

What makes this case stand out however, is the statement Olenick made in his report. Here’s the relevant excerpt from Olenick’s memo (taken from Gazette Times with my emphasis):

Olenick noted in the report that there was no evidence to support that the driver acted intentionally, so the prosecutor focused his analysis on whether there was sufficient evidence that the driver acted recklessly or with criminal negligence in causing the crash.

“The evidence shows that (the driver) diverted his attention away from the road in the moments immediately preceding the crash,” Olenick wrote in the report. “(The driver) told police that he noticed something on his phone, which was on the seat next to him. He then looked down, and it was in this moment that the crash occurred.”





Olenick wrote that the question was whether the act of looking at the phone, and away from the road, constituted conduct that was criminally negligent, which is defined as a “gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the same situation.”

“This presents a difficult question on which reasonable minds may differ,” he wrote. “My analysis is whether simply looking away from the road at his phone is any different from looking in one’s blind spot, looking at a map, grabbing a cheeseburger, or turning momentarily for any other reason where the practical effect of the behavior is to deviate one’s attention from the road…

“I cannot conclude that (the driver) acted recklessly or with criminal negligence when he struck and killed Mr. Sundstrom with his vehicle.”

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Scene of the collision.
(Photo: Oregon State Police)

It’s worth noting that the auto user also admitted to drinking prior to the crash but by the time authorities were contacted it was too late for a breath test.

Legal constraints are one thing; but it’s outrageous for a DA to casually dismiss distracted driving in this context (where alcohol had been consumed and a man was killed as a result). Earlier this month a bill pushed by the Multnomah County DA’s office tried to make it easier to prosecute someone whose careless driving led to serious injury; but the bill died after trucking and automobile lobbyists convinced lawmakers that it was unfair to motor vehicle users.

This isn’t a legal issue or an enforcement issue, this is a cultural issue.

When we drive a car we are operating a deadly weapon. Until people respect it as such and adjust their behaviors accordingly, and until our justice and legal systems follow suit, these unavoidable accidents senseless and preventable tragedies will continue.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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