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Arundel texting crash highlights concerns with manslaughter law

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One witness attests in police reports to seeing Elizabeth Meyers texting on her phone as she pulled into traffic on Route 3 in Gambrills. Cellphone records, according to authorities, show a phone call and three text messages between Meyers and her mother at that time.

And several witnesses say they saw what happened next: As Meyers' Chevrolet Cobalt headed toward a convenience store across three lanes of traffic on that March afternoon, it struck a Suzuki motorcycle, tossing Jonathan Wesley Roberts into the air and killing him.

Anne Arundel County prosecutors hope that's enough to convict her of criminally negligent manslaughter, a misdemeanor, or felony auto manslaughter. But they acknowledge the felony charge is difficult to prove, and prosecutors from around the state have had mixed success in winning convictions using the new criminally negligent law, created in 2011 as a middle ground between auto manslaughter and lesser traffic charges punishable with fines.

Meanwhile, prosecutors are seeking changes to the new law, which carries a sentence of up to three years in prison and $5,000 fine, because they say even that is difficult to prove. Auto manslaughter carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

"It looks great on paper, but it doesn't work out that way," Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Anne Colt Leitess said of the new law.

Leitess said she hopes the Gambrills case helps clarify how the new law can be applied. This is the second time county prosecutors have sought a conviction under the law; they failed to secure such a conviction against a driver who ran a red light in Edgewater, striking another car. The driver of the second car died.

Meyers' attorney contends she wasn't texting when the crash in Gambrills happened.

"This is simply an auto accident," said Christopher Griffiths with the Roberts & Wood law firm. "The standard here is if she acted grossly negligently or criminally negligently, and there's no evidence of that."

Griffiths said he's confident Meyers will be acquitted when the case goes to trial, and he criticized the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office for discussing details of the case in the media.

"It's a hot-button issue, the use of cellphones," Griffiths said. "In an election year, they see an opportunity to engage in a prosecution that relates to that issue."

As of Oct. 1, talking or texting while driving is a primary offense in Maryland, and police throughout the Baltimore region have made a special effort to enforce the law. This week, Anne Arundel County Police Chief Kevin Davis ordered his officers not to use their cellphones while driving, even though the new state law has an exemption for law enforcement.

Leitess, who was appointed to her position earlier this year and is seeking election next year, said she has only discussed facts in the case that are publicly available in police reports and charging documents. Leitess believes there's enough evidence to support the charges.

"She was literally texting while crossing three lanes of a very busy boulevard," Leitess said.

Meyers also faces four traffic charges: reckless driving, negligent driving, failing to yield right of way and texting while driving.

Efforts to reach family members of Roberts, the victim in the case, were unsuccessful.

In the other Anne Arundel case, Edward Cramer of North Beach was found not guilty of criminally negligent manslaughter in the death of jazz musician Joe Byrd but was convicted of other traffic charges and fined $1,500, according to court records.

In drafting the criminally negligent manslaughter legislation, lawmakers aimed to create a charge that would punish drivers who cause fatal wrecks but whose actions don't rise to the "gross negligence" standard of auto manslaughter.

An auto manslaughter charge would be an appropriate charge against a person who is drunk and speeding and causes a fatal wreck, or perhaps someone who is street racing, Leitess said.

Under the new law, prosecutors must prove the driver made a "gross deviation" from how a reasonable person would act in the situation.

Several area prosecutors argue gross deviation is too tough to prove and too similar to the existing auto manslaughter law. They say it would be more appropriate for the charge to require only a "substantial deviation," which more aptly applies to actions that are more egregious than traffic violations.

Prosecutors have tried unsuccessfully to persuade state lawmakers to change the law and plan to try again in next year's General Assembly session.

In Baltimore County, Deputy State's Attorney John Cox said his office has been successful in prosecuting criminally negligent manslaughter cases two out of three times.

In the one case that didn't result in a conviction, Cox said, the driver was allegedly talking on the phone and traveling at 62 mph before smashing into the back of a car stopped on Interstate 83 because of an accident ahead. A 5-year-old boy in the back seat was killed, he said.

A judge found the driver not guilty of criminally negligent manslaughter and fined the driver $1,000 for negligent driving and speeding, Cox said.

"I truly believe I may have had much different chances of success if the law was more clearly set forward," Cox said.

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, a Democrat from Montgomery County, spent seven years trying to get the law passed. He said he would consider tweaks — but only if the state's attorneys can prove it's not working.

"I think that it's a fair law," said Simmons, a lawyer whose practice includes criminal defense. "It's an intermediate standard. It was designed to try to bring justice to the grieving families and children who have lost family members because of extreme acts of negligence."

More than 20 people traveled to Annapolis in 2011 to testify to lawmakers about the heartbreaking crashes that killed their loved ones and the drivers who only paid small fines for causing them.

In the emotionally charged hearing, lawmakers heard from a Reisterstown father whose teenage son was killed, the wife of a highway worker killed on the job near Frederick and an Owings Mills woman whose husband was struck and killed while riding his bike in northern Baltimore County.

"I really discovered that in many cases, the only fine, the only penalty, for taking a life is $500," Simmons said.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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