Thursday, September 22, 2005

Mother blames state for fatal crash

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (Sep 22, 2005): The family of a Scarborough woman killed in a truck accident on I-95 July 29 blames state officials for her death.

Pat LaNigra, the mother of Tina Turcotte, 40, who was killed when a tractor-trailer crushed her car, said her loss has been “devastating” and made worse by knowing it could have been avoided if state legislators had crafted better laws and police had done a better job of enforcing the ones already in place.

“This would have been prevented had the state backed up its own laws,” LaNigra said. “If their job was done the way it should have been done, Tina would still be here today.”

The truck driver, Scott Hewitt, 32, of Caribou has an extensive record of bad driving, including more than 60 convictions and more than 20 suspensions of his driver’s license. He had also been involved in a fatal crash in 1994, after which he pled guilty to three minor trucking violations and received a six-month suspended jail sentence.

“He was a bomb waiting to explode,” LaNigra said. Legislators and police are “allowing people to die on the roads and they’re just slapping hands” of bad drivers.

Hewitt, who was charged with nine misdemeanor crimes and two non-criminal traffic infractions in connection with the crash, has not been charged with anything that holds him responsible for Turcotte's death.

Hewitt has been charged with operating after suspension, possession of a suspended driver’s license, operating without authority, operating after being placed out of service, two counts of falsifying duty status records, operating without a medical certificate, operating while in possession of a radar detector, operating while in possession of a controlled substance, operating an unregistered motor vehicle and operating without insurance.

No felony charges

Although police found marijuana in the cab of Hewitt's truck, and he tested positive for it in a blood test, Kennebec County District Attorney Evert Fowle said there is no evidence Hewitt was impaired at the time of the crash.

The accident report from the Maine State Police indicated Turcotte and a tractor-trailer cab in front of her were slowing down because traffic was backed up in front of them. But Hewitt, who driving a tractor-trailer behind Turcotte, did not slow down, according to the report.

An assistant district attorney and four police officers at the scene, including one specially trained to recognize people under the influence of drugs, did not believe Hewitt was impaired, Fowle said, noting that marijuana can stay in a person’s bloodstream for as much as a month after a person uses the drug.

“We’re looking for any possible way to prosecute the more serious crime of manslaughter,” Fowle said.

But that’s not possible, because Hewitt’s behavior does not meet the legal definitions of “recklessness” or “criminal negligence,” Fowle said.

Both of those require a person be proven to have made a “gross deviation” from the “standard of care” an average person would use under the same circumstances, and Hewitt’s behavior was not that, Fowle said.

Fowle said the law does not allow him to consider the circumstances under which Hewitt was driving. “We’re looking at the actual driving,” Fowle said, “the operation of the vehicle itself” to determine whether the driving was reckless.

“What he was was inattentive,” Fowle said. “Inattentiveness has never been a basis” for a prosecution for vehicular manslaughter in Maine, he said.

Fowle said Hewitt is not being charged with being a habitual offender because the Secretary of State’s office, which handles driver records, did not classify him as such.

And he is not being charged with driving to endanger because that requires a similar standard of proof to manslaughter, Fowle said.

Fowle said he has talked to Turcotte’s family and said he answered the questions they had. “I told them to come back if they had more questions,” Fowle said.

He said he felt he owed them a personal explanation of the charges.

“It’s not an easy decision to make,” Fowle said. The only worse decision, he said, would be to “bring a charge that’s not supported by the evidence or the law.”

Husband hires lawyer

Scott Turcotte, Tina Turcotte's husband, referred all questions to his attorney, Michael Vaillancourt of the South Portland firm Ainsworth, Thelin, Chamberlain and Raftice. Vaillancourt said a lawsuit is “a possibility,” but would not indicate who might be the defendant in such a suit.

“Scott (Turcotte) was very disappointed” in Fowle’s decision not to charge Hewitt with manslaughter, and believes the evidence shows “Tina’s death being caused by Mr. Hewitt,” Vaillancourt said.

Scott Turcotte is interested in changing state laws, as are his parents-in-law, Pat LaNigra and her husband, Tina’s stepfather, Bob LaNigra.

But they are pained by the thought that “this could have been prevented” by applying the state’s existing laws more effectively, Pat LaNigra said.

Noting that Hewitt had possession of his driver’s license, which had been suspended, at the time of the crash, she and her husband ridiculed the state’s efforts to confiscate the license by mailing him notices.

Bob LaNigra said when a couple gets a divorce, a sheriff’s deputy comes to each person’s home and serves them papers they have to sign right there.

He wondered why that same care was not taken to get licenses back. He wants deputies to “physically remove the license as well as the license plates” from the vehicle of a person whose license is suspended.

And he said that if Hewitt had not had his license, a New York state trooper who stopped him the day before the fatal crash would have stopped him from driving on to Maine.

‘Someone’s not doing their job’

The LaNigras are working with Gov. John Baldacci and several state legislators, including Sen. William Diamond, D-Windham, a former Maine secretary of state, to change the laws.

But they are upset that other state initiatives appear to be getting more attention, including the newly hiked cigarette tax, which doubled Monday, going up to $2 per pack.

“Smoking isn’t even against the law,” said Pat LaNigra.

The couple wants stiffer penalties for bad drivers, and fears that politics will get in the way.

“Someone’s not doing their job. The laws aren’t strict enough,” said Pat LaNigra.

If a police officer is not sent to the home of a suspended driver to confiscate their license, Bob LaNigra said the person should have a short time to mail it in, and should face additional criminal charges for failure to do so.

He wants increased enforcement efforts on the roads and increased fines for breaking laws, saying the revenue from the fines could pay for the additional staff required to improve patrols and truck inspections.

He said in 1996 the Legislature decreased mandatory jail sentences from six months to a year, citing jail overcrowding, and refused to increase fines because people from northern Maine couldn’t afford them.

Though the fines have been increased since, he worries that any law changes “won’t be strict enough because they’ll be compromised.”

Pat LaNigra said fines should be high, and had little sympathy for people who couldn’t afford them. She said Hewitt’s friends and family members knew he was driving illegally, and suggested he hit them up for financial help to pay the fines. She said eventually they would stop helping him and he would be forced off the road.

Into the future

Both Pat and Bob LaNigra are concerned that, though Hewitt may face some jail time, he will eventually be eligible for his license again.

“He’s a bomb waiting to blow up. He’s a murderer waiting to kill,” said Pat LaNigra. “Sixty-eight convictions, kills two people and there’s no law to get this man off the road forever.”

She is concerned the state is sending the wrong message to young drivers, who, she noted, risk losing their licenses for running stop signs.

And she doesn’t believe Fowle’s allegation that Hewitt was merely “inattentive.”

“How long can you be inattentive” that you don’t see a car and a tractor-trailer cab in front of you, she asked. “It’s not inattentiveness; it’s incompetency.”

She thinks a proposal from the state to publicize the worst 100 drivers in Maine is too little, given that there are tens of thousands of people with suspended driver’s licenses, many of them with five or more suspensions.

“This is a no-brainer,” she said, asking that the list be expanded to at least 1,000, or possibly even more.

“These people are on the road constantly, not just truckers,” she said.

She wants people to write to the governor and their legislators, and to remember “the people that you vote in were partially responsible for this.”

She noted that not all truckers are bad drivers, and that not all bad drivers are truckers. “Tina’s father was a trucker for 25 years and he never once got a suspension,” she said.

The couple and Tina’s husband are planning a memorial charity dance on Friday, Oct. 21, at the Asylum in Portland, to benefit the Susan Komen Breast Cancer Fund and Lab-Quest, in honor of Tina’s having survived breast cancer. This was her fifth year cancer-free.

And on Sunday, Oct. 30, the Great Pumpkin Race in Saco, which Bob LaNigra has organized since 1978, will split its proceeds with its usual beneficiary, the American Lung Association, and charities close to Tina’s heart. “She was a great animal lover,” said Pat LaNigra. The charities receiving money in Tina’s honor have not yet been determined.

Pat LaNigra is still pained and bitter. “I’ve just lost so much faith in the system,” she said. “This would have been prevented if the state was doing its job.”