I was asked for legal commentary on Fox News Sheppard Reporting Show on the tragic deaths of 4 people at the Oklahoma State Homecoming Parade.
Adacia Avery Chambers was arrested after her car sped up and struck the parade attendees killing 4 people including a child. She was charged with driving under the influence. Her attorney has stated that she was not drinking and had just left work where reports states she may have been just fired. Her attorney has also stated that she may have been suffering from a mental illness at the time of the accident. We are all awaiting toxicology tests to see if this was caused by any substances.
Death by Auto, Assault by Auto, Manslaughter, and Aggravated Manslaughter cases continue to be a cause of great devastation in this country. As a former New Jersey Homicide Prosecutor and now Criminal Defense Attorney that has handled these cases from both sides of the isle, they represent a great tragedy. Lives are lost and that is horrible. And, typically the persons charged with these offenses were otherwise good people that made a tragic mistake that will affect their lives as well. I have handled cases with mothers, fathers, doctors, lawyers, homemakers, and all sorts of people that never committed a violation in their lives.
In all assault by auto cases, the key legally is recklessness. The difference between negligence (which is only handled civilly) and recklessness is the difference between deaths like these being mere accidents or criminal prosecutions. Recklessness means that how the person was driving at the time of the accident in a manner that was a deviation from how a “reasonable” person would drive and create, and in fact created, a risk of injury that was highly probable.
In the past, you only saw these cases charged criminally if there was drinking or drugs involved. Today, however, the public should be aware that many violations of traffic laws may lead to these charges if someone is killed. Speeding; swerving in and out of lanes of traffic; distracted driving; texting; being under the influence of even prescribed medications; and many more scenarios may apply.
Mental health illnesses are not a basis to escape liability in most every instance. So, children especially should be advised that not following the traffic laws (even without drugs or alcohol) may form a basis to argue that the conduct was reckless under the law and lead to charges that carry decades in prison if a person is killed.
As a New Jersey Prosecutor, I hated these cases. Prosecutors are accustomed to prosecuting cases where the person was intentionally creating harm and knowingly wanted the bad result to occur. I have seen so many good people lose everything over a singular mistake whether it be by taking drugs of alcohol or just driving in a manner that was reckless and led to tragic deaths.