Teens Not Getting the Message about Texting while Driving

While countless PSAs, driver education courses, and parental admonitions apparently haven't been enough to send a message to teen drivers about the dangers of texting and driving, last week's conviction and sentencing of 18 year old Aaron Deveau in Haverhill District Court ought to serve as a warning to everyone that the State Police and DA's Offices are serious about cracking down on a new law (no texting while driving) that has largely been ignored. The Deveau case is both cautionary and instructive on two fronts. First, it makes clear that authorities have no compunction against filing serious charges such as motor vehicular homicide [Mass. Gen. Laws. ch. 90 § 24G] and negligent operation of a motor vehicle [Mass. Gen. Laws. ch. 90 § 24(2)(a)] even in cases where, like the Deveau case, alcohol is not a factor, the operator has a spotless record, and is still in his or her teens. (Deveau was 17 at the time of the accident.) Second, it reinforces the forensic evidentiary power of the written record. Whether in the form of a text, email, tweet, posting or instant message, such records can last in perpetuity and are easily accessible by law enforcement in establishing timelines, motives, inconsistent statements, and in a case where the core allegation is texting while driving, actual guilt.

It may come as a surprise to many teens, as it seemed to to Deveau, whose denial about texting while driving at the time of the accident seemed somewhat rambling and disconnected, that the State Police can meticulously re-create a timeline based on cell tower locations and the texts themselves, which they are usually able to recover with little difficulty, that support the prosecutor's claim about him texting just before impact. People need to understand when using today's technology, whether it be a smart phones, an iPad©, texting, Tweeting, Facebook, or any other computer/internet technology, that they are creating permanent records that can, and often do, come back to haunt them. Forensic computer experts, while not necessarily having the fanciful capabilities of television CSI units, certainly can and do produce results capable of making nearly airtight cases for criminal investigators.

Without encouraging such behavior, this is not to say there aren't defenses or possible mitigation. The police are allowed under the new law to stop and ticket an operator for texting while driving, but under those simple circumstances, the ticket is defensible – unless physically arrested for another crime in the process of being stopped, the police have no right to seize the phone, and are not likely to be able to prove one was actually texting (short of being arrested and obtaining a search warrant for the phone/records). However, as in life, things are rarely that simple. In the circumstances of an accident with serious physical injuries, or even fatalities, it is an entirely different story. In such a case, the car and immediate vicinity become a crime scene and everything in and around the car becomes evidence all but assuring the police probable cause to apply for warrants for items like cell phones that manifest a reasonable expectation of privacy – the operator has to understand those texts or emails will be recovered – and used against him or her, as they were in the Deveau case.

Despite all this, a recent CDC national survey of more than 15,000 high school teens showed that 33% openly admit to texting/e-mailing while driving despite legal prohibitions against the same enacted in more than 44 states. Even in light of last weeks ruling and sentence, which Judge Abany stated was aimed partially at deterrence to other drivers who text, local teens have stated their belief that their peers will continue to text and drive, believing something similar won't happen to them. This kind of thinking is exactly the type that leads to trouble for many teens. Of course, it would be remiss to lay this solely at the feet of teens. While they, as less experienced drivers and more frequent texters than adults, are particularly susceptible to the dangers of texting while driving, I would not be at all surprised if future cases involve adults, nor would I be surprised if they receive far harsher sentences given that they "should know better."

Deveau was sentenced to 2½ years in the House of Correction on the motor vehicle homicide charge, and 2 years on the texting while driving charge, both penalties running concurrently. Given his youth and clean record, Judge Abany suspended all but 1 year of his sentence. However, the texting charge also carries with it an automatic 15 years loss of license. Given the circumstances, 1 year of incarceration in the local House of Correction is not going to amount to a long time, relatively speaking, in this young man's life. Once he's released Deveau's life may appear to be like that of any other teen – from all appearances a decent kid making his way in the world - but the truth is his life has been forever changed. Not only will his time in jail likely affect him in myriad ways, but for 15 years he will be barred from driving, and will always carry the stigma of a serious conviction on his record. Still, all of this pales in comparison to the weight of knowing his negligence forever harmed another family and caused the death of another innocent driver. Whatever those texts said, they clearly weren't "worth" sending and weren't anything nearly as significant as the message he finally received...

If you have been accused of a crime and you need a lawyer to represent you please contact Brad Bailey at 781-589-2828