Haverhill Texting Sentence: Get The Message?

As a Dedham, Massachusetts motor vehicle violations lawyer, I’ve been watching the Haverhill District Court trial of Aaron Deveau, age 18. Deveau was on trial for Motor Vehicle Homicide By Negligent Operation, following the February 2011death of a man, Daniel Bowley of New Hampshire, in a car crash that police and investigators say was caused because Deveau was texting while driving. Actually, there were two separate criminal counts against Deveau: Negligent Motor Vehicle Homicide, and Texting while Driving.

It is the Texting While Driving charge that has generated all the attention, because it is the first criminal prosecution of the state’s relatively new law that went into effect in September 2010, which bans teens from texting while driving. Known as the Safe Driver Law, the law was enacted to deal with the growing prevalence of teenage drivers who are tethered to their cell phones and smart phones, many of whom think nothing of texting while driving. In essence, the Commonwealth was linking the two counts causally, saying that the Negligent Motor Vehicle Homicide occurred because Deveau was texting while driving. The texting while driving law prohibits any Junior Operator from using any type of mobile communications device, whether to text or phone, while driving. Penalties for this offense are:

• 1st offense: $100 fine, 60 day license suspension, & attitudinal course
• 2nd offense: $250 fine, 180 day license suspension
• 3rd or subsequent offense: $500 fine, 1 year license suspension

The law also bans texting by any drivers over age 18, but allows them to use a cell phone, so long as the device does “not interfere with driving.” (That’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one.)

After little more than three hours deliberations, the jury in this case came back with a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced Deveau to 2 ½ years on the negligent motor vehicle homicide charge and two years on the texting while driving charge, for a total of 4 1/2 years. The judge suspended all but one year, meaning that Deveau will serve only one year for both charges. In addition, Deveau received three years’ probation. He also lost his driver’s license for 15 years and will owe restitution that will be determined at a later date.

As a Norfolk County criminal lawyer, several people have asked me my professional opinion of this verdict, including The Boston Herald. Because of my own trial schedule, I was not able to view the trial in person. However, I have spoken with people who were there, and several described Deveau as petulant and arrogant. No surprise to me, observing teens these days. What was surprising to me, though, was the fact that he took the stand in his own defense. That’s not normally a wise trial tactic in criminal cases. On the stand, he denied he was texting at the time the accident occurred, despite the fact that the prosecution introduced cell phone records showing that he was indeed texting in the seconds prior to the crash. One of his statements on the stand: He was distracted “thinking about my homework.” This confirms one or both of the following personality traits: Arrogance, and/or stupidity.

I agree with both the jury’s verdict here – the evidence supported the jury’s findings, on both counts. Interestingly, the jury could have found Deveau guilty on the Negligent Motor Vehicle Homicide charge, and not guilty on the texting while driving charge, but they didn’t. This is important, because the jury in my view was intentionally linking the causal relationship between the two. Ironically, Deveau’s mother had this to say in court: “My son did not intentionally go out to hurt anybody. He would never.” She doesn’t get it, like so many people: You don’t need to intentionally kill someone to be convicted on a charge of Negligent Motor Vehicle Homicide. That why it’s called “Negligent.”

I also agree with the judge’s sentence, for two reasons: 1) This defendant needs to be punished – and severely (in fact, many observers have commented that Deveau received too light a sentence, given that a man is dead and his three children will grow up fatherless); and 2) A very strong message needs to be sent to young drivers everywhere, and to the public as a whole: The courts means business with this new law. It is not a “nitpicking law” or a “technicality law”, meant largely to give drivers a hard time needlessly. Texting while driving has to be one of the most arrogant, negligent acts that a driver can engage in – and since September 2010, it’s criminal.

Remember this: At only 30 MPH (not speeding in most areas,) a car travels at 44 feet per second. One-half of one second of inattention to the road is all it takes to kill or maim someone.

So kids (teen drivers,) think twice the next time you’re driving: Ditch the smart phone. And that goes for you, too, mommy and daddy. Or face the legal music, like this Deveau kid.