San Clemente Woman Faces DUI Vehicular Manslaughter Charges After OC Crash

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

A few weeks ago, I posted on the different ways that a DUI can be charged as a felony. One of the ways is if a DUI-related collision causes death or injury to another person. Additionally, if the DUI leads to the death of someone, the driver could also be facing felony vehicular manslaughter charges, possibly even second degree murder charges.

27-year-old Bani Duarte, of San Clemente, found this out the hard way when her Hyundai Sonata rear-ended a Toyota causing it to burst into flames. Three of the occupants were killed and one seriously injured.

In the early morning hours of Thursday, March 29th, a Toyota carrying four Las Vegas residents was stopped at Pacific Coast Highway and Magnolia Street in Huntington Beach. That’s when Duarte collided with the vehicle causing it to burst into flames.

Alex Martinez, 20, of Huntington Beach, witnessed the collision and described the incident with the OC Register.

“Martinez…was in a car with his friends returning from the gym when they saw the woman’s white vehicle swerving, at times speeding and hitting sidewalks.

‘She went to the far right side of the lane and hit the sidewalk really bad and that’s when we decided to call the cops,’ Martinez said Thursday.

“He told police he believed it was a drunken driver going northbound on Pacific Coast Highway. He and his friends followed the woman’s car until it stopped on metered parking by Orange Street.

“Martinez and his friends pulled up to Duarte and asked if she was okay, he said.

“‘I told her she hit two sidewalks back there and she said “Really? No way,”’ he said. Martinez’s friends offered her a ride home. She turned them down and soon was off driving again.

“As she approached Magnolia Street, he said, there was a red car stopped in a middle lane of the intersection. She braked, but then sped up and hit the car which immediately caught fire, Martinez said.

“Martinez said he and his friends reported the crash to police and saw someone leave the red car. He described the male as appearing to be unhurt.

“‘I think he was in shock because he walked towards us all confused, not really knowing what just happened,’ he said. ‘So he sat down and we asked him if there were other people in the car and he said there was three more in the car.’

“‘The car was already in flames and the backseat doors were just crushed by the impact.’

“Martinez said he and his friends and some others who stopped at the crash tried to help but couldn’t get to the people inside. Firefighters extinguished the blaze as Duarte remained in her car after the crash, he said.

“‘I felt powerless and guilty,’ Martinez said.

“He said he was told by officers on scene that the fatalities appeared to be teenagers. Some social media posts have also indicated the victims were young people visiting the area for Spring Break. Huntington Beach police did not release information about the ages or identifies of the victims.

“Martinez described the experience as traumatizing.

“‘Such young people dying in the worst possible way.’ Martinez said. ‘They had their whole life ahead of them and for it to be taken away by a drunk driver is just awful.’”

News outlets have reported that the victims were Las Vegas high school students on spring break. The victims have also since been identified as AJ Rossi, Dylan Mack, and Brooke Hawley. The injured passenger was identified as Alexis Vargas.

Duarte will certainly be facing felony DUI with injury charges and vehicular manslaughter charges. It is unclear, however, whether Duarte will be facing murder charges. Prosecutors will increase the charges to murder if Duarte has previously been convicted of a DUI-related conviction.

I’ll take this opportunity to remind readers that it is easy to jump to conclusions about the guilt of Duarte (and all DUI defendants for that matter), especially given the facts of the incident. However, the law requires that we presume that people are innocent until they are proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a prosecutor or until they accept a plea deal. If Duarte is, in fact, guilty, I am not defending her actions, I am merely reiterating one of the most fundamental canons of American criminal law.  And if she is guilty of what she is being accused of, then she will be punished within the confines of the law.

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Teen Who Livestreamed DUI that Killed Her Sister Sentenced to More than Six Years in Prison

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

In July of last year, I wrote about then 18-year-old Obdulia Sanchez, who livestreamed her own DUI-related collision which killed her 14-year-old passenger sister. At the time, Sanchez pleaded not guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter and several other felony offenses. On January 24th, however, Sanchez withdrew her not guilty plea and entered a plea of no contest and just today was sentenced to six years and four months in prison.

In July of 2017, Sanchez, who was from Stockton, California, was livestreaming herself driving with her sister, Jacqueline and another 14-year-old in the back seats. Sanchez, who had been drinking, could be seen dancing to music with her hands off of the steering wheel moments before the fatal collision.

According to police, Sanchez veered onto the shoulder of a road and overcorrected causing her vehicle to flip several times. Sanchez’s video recorded the collision from the inside of the vehicle. When the car stopped rolling, Sanchez continued livestreaming the incident.

Neither Jacqueline nor the other passenger had been wearing seatbelts. Jacqueline was ejected from the vehicle and sustained fatal head injuries. The other passenger was also ejected and sustained severe injuries to her leg.

While standing over her sister’s body, Sanchez could be heard saying, “Hey, everybody, if I go to f***ing jail for life, you already know why. My sister is f***ing dying. Look, I f***ing love my sister to death. I don’t give a f***. Man, we about to die. This is the last thing I wanted to happen to us, but it just did. Jacqueline, please wake up.”

The livestream was recorded from Instagram and later reposted to Facebook by someone who had seen it.

Sanchez’s blood alcohol content was later determined to be 0.10 percent and she was subsequently charged with felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, felony manslaughter while intoxicated, two counts of felony driving under the influence resulting in injury and two counts of felony driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more causing injury.

At her sentencing, Sanchez addressed the court saying that the moment she realized that her sister had died played “over and over in [her] head.”

“When I look at my mom’s face, I know she hates me,” Sanchez said. “I would hate myself too. I’m such a disappointment to my parents.”

Members of Sanchez’s family pleaded with the court to grant her probation. Sanchez’s public defender also requested probation arguing that prison time would further harm Sanchez who had a difficult childhood. Sanchez was sexually abused as an 11-year-old by a family friend. Two years later, she was abducted, sexually assaulted, and forced to use methamphetamine and alcohol which, according to her attorney, began her addiction to drugs and alcohol.

The district attorney, however, pushed for a 12-year prison sentence pointing to the “callousness” of the video following the crash.

Judge Ronald Hansen disagreed with both the district attorney and Sanchez’s attorney saying that both 12 years in prison and probation were inappropriate. In finding that Sanchez was not “callous,” but remorseful, he sentenced her to six years and four months in a California State Prison.

According to Sanchez’s attorney, with prop 57, Sanchez may get out of jail in 2020.

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Toddler Killed in Suspected DUI-Related Collision

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

“This accident was so violent, that even though it was a rear end accident, it injured everyone in the vehicle and also killed a one-year-old,” John Tyler of the California Highway Patrol said.

Tyler was referring to a collision that occurred this past weekend in Lemoore, California where 50-year-old Rodney Klamerus crashed into the back of a family’s Nissan. Three adults were in the Nissan along with one-year-old Liliana Valencia who was in her car seat.

All three adult passengers in the Nissan and Klamerus were transported to nearby hospitals. Valencia was transported to a hospital, but was later pronounced dead.

“We’re not sure exactly why, possibly due to his impairment, but he failed to slow down as this vehicle was ahead of him. And this vehicle turned northbound onto [Highway] 41, established itself in the lane, and was rear-ended shortly thereafter,” Tyler told KFSN.

Although investigators were unable to speak with Klamerus due to the severity of his injuries, he is facing several felony DUI charges which will likely include DUI-related homicide charges.

Homicide merely refers to the killing of another human being and encompasses murder charges, voluntary manslaughter charges, and involuntary manslaughter charges. It is still unclear exactly what homicide charge Klamerus faces.

Prior to 1981, a person who killed someone while driving under the influence could not be charged and convicted of murder. However, the landmark case of People v. Watson changed that.

California Penal Code section 187(a) provides that “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being…with malice aforethought.” “Malice” refers to the deliberate intention to unlawfully kill someone else. However, malice can be also be “implied” and implied malice exists when a person knowingly engages in an act that is dangerous to human life and they engage the act with a conscious disregard for human life. It is almost as if the court is saying that the drunk driver might as well have intended to kill someone because they knew it was dangerous to drive drunk, yet they did it anyways.

The court in Watson found that if the facts surrounding the DUI support a finding of “implied malice,” second degree murder can be charged when the DUI led to the death of someone else. In other words, if a person engages in driving under the influence when they know that it is dangerous to human life to do so, and they kill someone, they can be charged with murder.  

Now the question becomes, “Did the person know it was dangerous to human life to drive drunk?”

While we all know that it’s dangerous to drive drunk, since Watson, courts started expressly advising people who have been convicted of DUI, on the record, that it is, in fact, dangerous to drive drunk. This was not because the court actually thought that the defendant didn’t know it, but rather to ensure that the prosecutor could charge murder instead of manslaughter upon a subsequent DUI causing the death of someone.

Whether Klamerus will be charged with murder or some lesser homicide charge will depend on whether prosecutors can prove that he expressly knew that, by driving drunk, he could kill someone, but decided to drive drunk anyways.

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Drunk Driver Incriminates Herself on Facebook

Monday, September 11th, 2017

Sometimes clients or potential clients send me messages on public forums like Facebook. Shockingly, the messages include incriminating statements or even admissions of guilt. I have to remind them that the internet is like Las Vegas in that what goes on the internet, stays on the internet and that it can be seen by anyone, including the police and prosecutors.

A Michigan woman found this out the hard way when she posted about her DUI collision on social media.

The woman was driving under the influence of alcohol when she collided into another vehicle. Following the collision, she fled the scene to a nearby hotel which had a computer and she immediately began posting about the incident.

Officers tracked her down to the hotel. The front desk attendant told the officers that the woman had come in, said that she had been in a collision, and that she had been drinking.

The officers then then tracked down the computer that the woman had been using. The woman had closed neither Facebook nor the Facebook messages that she had sent a friend. Lo and behold, there was a message from the woman to her friend detailing the DUI-accident.

A later breath test revealed that the woman had a blood alcohol content of 0.12 percent. It was also discovered that her license was expired. She was booked on charges of driving under the influence, operating a vehicle with an expired license, and leaving the scene of an accident causing injury.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Facebook message will be used against the woman in court.

Ok, so the officers in this instance didn’t discover the incriminating social media information as you might’ve expected, namely scanning pages hoping to come across incriminating information. That doesn’t change the point I’m trying to make.

Keep your mouth shut…and your fingers off the computer.  

The Fifth Amendment exists for a reason and is useless unless it is exercised. It doesn’t matter whether you’re guilty or innocent. Exercising your right to remain silent is about protecting yourself and your rights.

Not only will statements made to police be used against someone in a DUI case, or any criminal case for that matter, but also the information they post on social media.

Being a criminal defense attorney for close to eight years now, I’ve known prosecutors and law enforcement agents to search Facebook and other social media platforms for information that might incriminate people. If found, that information is often used as evidence in a criminal case against the person.

If you are arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, simply tell the officers that you respectfully decline to answer any questions without a lawyer present. Bear in mind that officers do not need to read you the Miranda Rights before they start asking question during a DUI stop. If you are arrested and charged, do not discuss the matter with anyone, either online or in person, to anyone but your attorney.

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Drunk Driver Faces Homicide Charges

Friday, August 25th, 2017

A California driver is being held on homicide charges for allegedly driving under the influences and striking an off-duty Modesto Police Department sergeant who was riding his bike.

According to investigators, 38-year-old Sgt. Michael Pershall was riding his bicycle on Tuesday evening when he was struck from behind by a vehicle. The vehicle then crashed into a fire hydrant. The driver of the vehicle, 32-year-old Matthew Gibbs of Modesto, California, was subsequently arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

Gibbs was booked into the Stanislaus County Jail and is being held without bail.

Court records show that Gibbs was arrested for a misdemeanor DUI in 2015. That case, however, was dismissed.

Gibbs is facing a homicide charge as well as two charges of DUI causing injury.

Homicide merely refers to the killing of another human being and encompasses murder charges, voluntary manslaughter charges, and involuntary manslaughter charges. It is still unclear exactly what homicide charge Gibbs faces.

Prior to 1981, a person who killed someone while driving under the influence could not be charged and convicted of murder. However, the landmark case of People v. Watson changed that.

California Penal Code section 187(a) provides that “Murder is the unlawful killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.” Malice can be expressed or implied, and implied malice is present when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.

So what does that mean?

Simply put, implied malice is when a person knowingly engages in an act that is dangerous to human life with a conscious disregard for human life.

The court in Watson found that if the facts surrounding the DUI support a finding of “implied malice,” second degree murder can be charged. In other words, if a person engages in driving under the influence when they know that it is dangerous to human life to do so, and they kill someone, they can be charged with murder.   

Now the question becomes, “Did the person know it was dangerous to human life to drive drunk?”

While we all know that it’s dangerous to drive drunk, since Watson, courts started expressly advising people who have been convicted of DUI, on the record, that it is, in fact, dangerous to drive drunk. This was not because the court actually thought that the defendant didn’t know it, but rather to ensure that the prosecutor could charge murder instead of manslaughter upon a subsequent DUI causing the death of someone.

Gibbs was only arrested for a prior DUI, but never convicted. Therefore, there’s a good chance that judge never gave Gibbs the “Watson advisement.” Thus, if the prosecutor wants to charge Gibbs with murder, they must find some other way to prove that Gibbs knew it was dangerous to drive while under the influence and that he ignored that danger.

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