In late November of this year, tragedy struck the Broward County Town of Davie when a motorist, allegedly distracted and blinded by the glare of the sun, crashed into a pack of cyclists, killing two and injuring several.
As of right now, no criminal charges have been filed. But an investigation by police and the State Attorney’s Office is pending.
In the State of Florida, simply getting into a car accident that results in death is not, by itself, a crime. People often think that death demands criminal liability. But that’s not always the case.
While tragic and sometimes avoidable, a car accident resulting in death may be hit that - an accident. So long as no criminal statutes were being violated, no party will be charged.
This means that nobody was impaired by drugs or alcohol, nobody’s license was suspended, and nobody who is driving in a reckless manner with wanton disregard for public safety.
If a non-criminal statute was violated, such as speeding or careless driving, what will result is known as a fatality. This is a non-criminal ticket assigned to the party at fault when somebody dies in a traffic crash. The party at fault will face fines, traffic school, and a six-month license suspension. But no jail time or criminal penalties.
If the party at fault is found to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol (DUI) or were otherwise violating a criminal statute, they will face manslaughter charges.
So, in the case of a distracted driver, does criminal liability apply?
Being distracted while driving can constitute the reckless operation of a vehicle, which would consist of the criminal charge of reckless driving.
The most common distraction we see on the road these days is the smartphone. People texting, emailing, using social media, or otherwise paying more attention to the device in their hand than the road in front of them.
Smartphone data can be obtained from a device after a crash to determine if the device was in use at the time of the crash.
In the case of the Davie cyclists, police requested the driver’s cellphone, which she provided for inspection.
Had she refused to hand it over, a search warrant could have been issued.
The data will be assessed to see if the phone was in use at the time of the crash. If the phone was in use at the time of the crash and the evidence to suggest that the phone was the cause of the distraction, the driver could be charged with vehicular manslaughter.
Eric Matheny is a criminal defense attorney serving South Florida.