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.