Seeking justice for lives struck down

Families of victims killed by reckless, impaired drivers say the Legislature enacting tougher punishment for vehicular homicide is a 'baby step' in right direction

By Jessica Prokop, Columbian Courts Reporter

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Oregon takes a tougher approach

While the state of Washington has specific crimes for vehicular homicide and assault, Oregon does not. And drivers who negligently kill people may face longer sentences than in Washington.

In Oregon, people involved in fatal crashes where a felony was committed are charged with manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. Those laws also apply to homicides where an automobile was not involved. If an Oregon driver has a prior conviction for manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, he or she can be charged with aggravated vehicular homicide.

Serious injury crashes are charged under Oregon's felony assault statutes.

Also, Oregon has Measure 11, a voter-approved law which establishes mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, such as manslaughter and aggravated vehicular homicide. Washington does not have these mandatory minimums.

Oregon's mandatory minimum for a first-degree manslaughter conviction is 10 years; second-degree manslaughter is six years and three months; and aggravated vehicular homicide is 20 years.

In comparison, a Washington defendant with no criminal history faces a sentencing range of 6.5 years to 8.5 years, under vehicular homicide with DUI -- currently, the most serious offense of vehicular homicide. That will soon change in June when the punishment for vehicular homicide with reckless driving will increase to match the punishment for vehicular homicide DUI.

— Jessica Prokop

Tanya Mosh would describe her mother as a no-nonsense kind of woman. So when she joined her kids in sliding across the family’s wood floors in their socks, everyone had to giggle.

The memory still brings a smile to Mosh’s face years later. And now memories are all she has left of her mother.

Raisa Mosh and her friend Irina Gardinant were struck and killed by a careless driver Jan. 19, 2014, as they crossed Vancouver Mall Drive at the intersection of Northeast 72nd Avenue. The women and Mosh’s son, Mark, who were in a crosswalk, were headed to their vehicle after a baby shower.

The driver of the pickup, Brandon C. Smith, ran the red light and fled the scene.

He was ultimately sentenced to 8.5 years in prison for vehicular homicide — the maximum sentence allowed by law.

In the same year, other motorists charged with vehicular homicide were later sentenced to anywhere from four to 16 years. One motorist who struck and killed a pedestrian in 2012 only received six months in the Clark County Jail.

Tanya Mosh, Raisa’s eldest daughter, said she was disappointed and shocked with the sentence handed down to her mother’s killer.

“I feel like eight years is a really small amount, obviously,” Mosh said in a March interview with The Columbian. “I think he did deserve at least 20 years.

“The most frustrating part was that he did hurt two different families,” she added.

The Legislature dictates the sentencing guidelines that judges have before them.

“We are limited on what we can do in the system,” says Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu, who handles Clark County’s vehicular homicide and assault cases.

However, a partial solution is in sight for victims who have decried the sentencing guidelines for these crimes.

Gov. Jay Inslee last month signed into law a measure known as Jason’s Law, named for a father who died by vehicular homicide in Pasco last year.

Beginning June 8, the sentencing range for vehicular homicide caused by driving in a reckless manner will increase from 21 months to 27 months to 78 months to 102 months.

“Unfortunately, it takes a true tragedy like this to make us aware as policymakers of these inequities in the policy guidelines,” said Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, one of the bill’s sponsors. “Let’s hope this sends a clear message: If you’re going to drive recklessly, you’re going to be held accountable.”

The new law will not apply in some cases, however, and may not be enough to satisfy victims’ loved ones.

‘Justice not served’

Heather Luden doesn’t leave home without her dad’s gold ring, which she wears on a chain around her neck. It’s one of the fond reminders she has left of him.

James Luden was riding his motorcycle April 14, 2014, on Padden Parkway when he was struck from behind by another vehicle. Luden, 54, had been stopped at a traffic light. He died at the scene.

The driver who struck him, Tanya Leffler, was sentenced in January to 7.75 years in prison, about a year short of the maximum. She had been driving under the influence of methamphetamine.

“Justice was not served that day,” Heather Luden said.

“The situation isn’t fair, not to my family or the community,” she added. “(Leffler) made all of the choices. We had no choice in this.”

Luden said she’s not only outraged that the judge didn’t give Leffler the maximum sentence, she’s angry that Leffler was released from jail multiple times on bail, only to commit new crimes.

While out on bail in the vehicular homicide case, Leffler violated her release conditions by possessing methamphetamine with the intent to sell it and by growing marijuana. She bailed out again but was back in court a few days later for violating the conditions of her release by misrepresenting where she was living and failing to report to corrections officials.

After posting bail a third time, Leffler tested positive for methamphetamine use. She also was picked up on a warrant when she didn’t show up for a court appearance. Members of the U.S. Marshals Service took her into custody about a week later near Salem, Ore.

“It was a continuous slap in the face. We had to relive it every time she was arrested,” Luden said. “Nobody should be given so many chances, especially with something so serious. (My dad) didn’t get any chances.”

Jason’s Law is a “baby step” in the right direction, Luden said, but she thinks the sentencing guidelines for vehicular homicide need to drastically change.

“Twenty years is a life-changing amount of time,” she said. “What stops people from breaking the law? Consequences. If the consequences are scary enough, you might doublethink what you’re doing.”

Disparity in sentences

Leffler’s case was just one of 27 vehicular homicides filed in Clark County over the last six years, according to the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

One of the lengthiest sentences handed down for a vehicular homicide in recent years was 200 months, or about 16.5 years, to a man named Duane Abbott.

Abbott was sentenced last year for striking and killing 7-year-old Cadence Boyer with his vehicle while she was trick-or-treating Halloween 2014. Cadence and her mother, Annie Boyer, and another woman and girl were walking on a sidewalk along Northeast 112th Avenue in Vancouver when Abbott ran into them with his car.

Abbott was driving under the influence of marijuana and methamphetamine at the time.

Vu said it was one of the most horrific vehicular homicide cases he’s seen.

“What’s different about these crimes is it can happen to anybody. There’s no way to predict who it’s going to happen to,” he said. “It crosses gender, races, class. It has the most potential for impacting the most lives.”

The sad part, he added, is that the crimes are preventable. “It’s up to the person who’s driving,” Vu said.

Abbott also was one of the few defendants who was not offered a plea deal.

Criminal defense attorney Steve Thayer, who represented Abbott, has handled dozens of vehicular homicide and assault cases over his career. He said Abbott’s sentence was the longest he’s had a client receive for that type of crime.

“Does the sentence fit the crime? According to the Legislature,” Thayer said. “I disagree because it was excessive and an unnecessary expense to the community. To me, it was absurd he got 16 years.

“We shouldn’t be punishing people for the sake of revenge,” he added. “No sentence is going to bring back the victim or heal the victims. It’s a question of how much punishment is necessary in any given case.”

Thayer said he was surprised that Jason’s Law passed, and that if anything, the sentencing guidelines should decrease and include probation options.

“The Legislature is famous for increasing punishments and then adjusting punishments when they realize that we can’t afford it,” he said.

In recent years, the shortest sentence doled out in a Clark County vehicular homicide was six months. Scott “Scotty” R. Rowles was sentenced last year after pleading guilty to misdemeanor driving under the influence of marijuana. The charge was downgraded from vehicular homicide as part of a plea deal.

Rowles struck and killed 62-year-old Donald L. Collins of Vancouver as he crossed the road in December 2012. Collins had been crossing the eastbound lanes of East Mill Plain Boulevard near Andresen Road and stopped in a median before proceeding into westbound traffic. He was not in a crosswalk or an intersection, according to court documents.

The prosecution offered Rowles the plea deal because of issues with the evidence. Vu said the law for obtaining blood samples changed while Rowles’ case was pending, and the prosecution could no longer use the toxicology results that would have showed impairment.

“This is why these cases are so difficult,” Vu said. “We try to be as consistent as possible, but the facts in all the cases are different. We have to use our judgment and experience to deem the most appropriate way to resolve a case.

“It’s not a perfect system,” he added. “We will continue to improve and refine the system.”

Jason’s Law

Thirty-six-year-old Jason Smith was dropping off his youngest daughter at gymnastics April 2, 2015, when his car was T-boned by a pickup in Pasco.

The driver, a known gang member and convicted felon, was fleeing police who had tried to stop him for a traffic violation. The chase was called off, but the pickup had already reached speeds of about 100 mph and may have still been going 85 mph when it hit Smith’s car.

Miguel Paniagua was later sentenced to 8.5 years in prison, a lengthier sentence than what he would have gotten if he hadn’t fled the scene afterward.

“When I learned about the facts of the case, I was horrified,” said Brown, the Kennewick senator. “It’s absolutely appalling to me someone can get in a vehicle, kill someone and face the potential of only a year and a half in jail.” Or possibly less time, she added, if the defendant takes a plea deal.

Three prongs exist under vehicular homicide and assault in Washington that largely control a defendant’s potential sentence: disregard the safety of others, reckless driving and driving under the influence.

Jason’s Law will soon increase the sentencing range for vehicular homicide reckless driving to match vehicular homicide DUI and first-degree manslaughter. Vehicular homicide DUI has traditionally carried the heftiest punishment for the crime.

“Why is it terrible to drink and drive, but not so terrible if you’re cognizant of what you’re doing and make the conscious decision to drive recklessly?” Brown said.

“It’s particularly egregious to consciously get behind the wheel and make the determination and conviction to drive an automobile that weighs, typically, over 3,000 pounds. You have to know you’re going to cause damage if you drive at excess rates of speed,” she added.

The disparity in sentencing ranges for reckless driving and DUI, Brown said, was an oversight that the Legislature needed to correct.

Vu agrees.

“Now that it has actually passed, I think it is the right decision, and clearly, our Legislature and governor have seen the devastation that these types of crimes can cause,” he said. “Bottom line, the results are the same whether or not the defendant was impaired or operating a vehicle in a reckless manner.”