In April of 2015, Jason Smith had just dropped his daughter off at gymnastics practice and was headed to the post office. Miguel Paniagua was speeding, attempting to flee from a police pursuit. When their cars collided, Miguel survived the wreck, but Jason did not.
Police did not arrest Miguel for another 13 days. Because he was not in custody shortly after the crash, there was no way to test him for drugs and alcohol; DUI comes with a much harsher sentence, but police have a very narrow window to gather evidence of an intoxicated driver. Miguel was given a sentence of only 8.5 years—the maximum sentence allowed in court—for the vehicular homicide he committed. With good behavior, he could be released in a mere 3.5 years.
John Ed and Debbie Smith, Jason’s parents, spoke with state senators on Tuesday about “Jason’s Law,” which would tighten sentencing laws for fatal hit-and-run crashes. Under the proposed law, driving recklessly would become an aggravating factor on the charges after a fatal crash; this type of vehicular homicide, due to reckless driving, would be on the same level from a sentencing standpoint as vehicular homicide caused by an intoxicated driver. Currently, a charge of vehicular homicide by reckless means carries less than a third of the penalty of vehicular homicide by DUI. Washington State’s current law also punishes drivers for not stopping after a fatal accident—even if the driver didn’t cause the accident through recklessness—more harshly that it punishes drivers who operate a vehicle recklessly.
New reckless driving laws could have big consequences
Not all drivers who cause an accident, even a fatal accident, face charges in criminal court. While civil cases to recover damages are common after car accidents, drivers who cause damage will not be charged with a crime unless they leave the scene after an accident or if they’re found to have been operating their vehicle recklessly—either because they were too intoxicated behind the wheel, or they were doing something on the road that they should have known was unsafe.
If you’re not sure whether your behavior behind the wheel would be considered reckless, it’s time to check the Washington State Patrol’s rules of the road. If you or a loved one has been injured by a reckless driver, it may be time to speak with a personal injury attorney who can handle a civil claim while the driver goes through the criminal court system.