IT'S A STORY to get a suspicious citizen's blood boiling. A young woman, speeding in her Ford Explorer and, according to the State Patrol, talking on her cell phone, plows into a stalled Civic. The Civic's gas tank ruptures and burns, and the car's four occupants—a couple from Bulgaria and their young daughters—are killed. State troopers trace the woman's cell phone records and find that, contrary to her claims, she was talking on the phone when she rammed the Civic. They recommend charging her with vehicular homicide. Instead, King County prosecutors last week decided not to charge Sarah Potts with any felony—leaving the State Patrol the option of pursuing second-degree negligent driving in District Court. That carries a top fine of $250.
Oh, one more thing. Potts is the wife of a Bothell police officer. Hah! you might say. Once again, the fraternity protects its own. A cop's wife's freedom is worth more than the lives of struggling immigrants and their children.
Not at all, King County prosecutors insist. "We looked for some type of evidence to bring a charge of vehicular homicide," says prosecutors' spokesperson Dan Donohoe. "There just wasn't any. We were not able to show she was going at an extreme speed beyond the flow of traffic. With the cell phone, there would need to be some evidence that her driving was affected in some way, such as swerving." Donohoe concedes that Potts "was negligent and inattentive." But "inattention alone under these circumstances would not constitute disregard of the safety of others."
Those may sound like fine hairs to split. But Paul Cullen, a defense attorney who's handled many motor-vehicle cases, says this argument sounds consistent with past application of vehicular-homicide law. And King County prosecutors have gone after other public-safety figures who kill people in off-duty accidents much more aggressively. In 1999, they sought and won a vehicular-homicide conviction against George Moorhead, a Woodinville firefighter who rammed a car carrying three Vietnamese-born men—immigrants again. They also urged prison time—three years, the standard sentence. But the trial judge, citing Moorhead's upstanding record, assigned a year on work release, to the prosecutors' dismay. The factors were different then, says Donohoe. Not only was Moorhead, like Potts, driving "over the posted limit," but he ran a stop sign and registered 0.07 percent blood alcohol an hour after the crash—enough to constitute willful disregard. The jury convicted him even though the judge suppressed that blood-alcohol data.
And then there was the Bellevue police officer, Eric Thomas, who prosecutors say was driving 80-plus in a 40-mph zone when he spun into an oncoming car. One of Thomas's passengers died, and another, an off-duty state trooper, was disabled. Thomas' timing was unlucky: Three hours earlier, the state's new 0.08 blood-alcohol standard took effect. Thomas registered 0.08. The judge rejected a plea for leniency based on his "exemplary" police record and gave him three years in prison.
Of three drivers whose negligence caused death, the police officer got the hardest time. So much for favoritism.
We've all seen people driving and holding phones barrel through intersections in utter obliviousness. Perhaps you, too, have narrowly gotten out of their way. If the tragedy of Sarah Potts and the Attilas teaches us anything, it is that it's time for a law against DWT—driving while telephoning.