FAYETTEVILLE -- No information will be released on a decision about whether to file criminal charges against the 17-year-old driver of a vehicle that hit a University of Arkansas, Fayetteville student in a campus crosswalk, Washington County prosecuting attorney Matt Durrett said.
"A decision has been made. However, since all proceedings pertaining to juveniles are confidential, I can't comment any further on it," Durrett said in an email Wednesday.
Andrea Torres, an 18-year-old architecture student from Clarksville, died two days after being struck on Feb. 2 while attempting to cross North Garland Avenue.
Police on that day cited the Little Rock driver, who they said was not a UA student, for using a cellphone and failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Her name has not been released by authorities.
State law prohibits drivers under 18 from using cellphones for "talking, typing, emailing, or accessing information on the Internet." The driver, according to a report released by UA police, "stated she looked down, into the vehicle, for one to two seconds, to access her phone," according to a section of the report written by officer Reilly S. Thurow.
Durrett on Thursday clarified that, in general, state law allows for a misdemeanor negligent-homicide charge to be filed against a driver improperly using a cellphone and suspected of causing a fatal vehicle accident.
"That doesn't guarantee that a charge could be filed, but it is possible," Durrett said. According to state law, a Class A misdemeanor carries a sentence of up to one year in jail. In general, intoxicated drivers involved in fatal vehicle accidents can face felony negligent-homicide charges, Durrett said.
He confirmed that no felony charges will be filed against the driver.
"The driver is under the age of 18," Durrett said in an email Wednesday. "Since no charge that was contemplated could have been filed in adult court, our option in filing any potential charge would have been in juvenile court. As a result, the juvenile code, and it's confidentiality requirement, apply here."
The law in Arkansas states that for children at least 16 years old, a prosecuting attorney "may charge a juvenile in either the juvenile or criminal division of circuit court" when "he or she engages in conduct that, if committed by an adult, would be any felony."
Prosecutors weigh several factors in deciding whether to file charges in a fatal accident where the driver is not intoxicated, Durrett said, including "the environment they were driving in, how fast they were going."
In 2017, state Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, sponsored legislation that became law raising fines for drivers who improperly use cellphones, which are referred to in the law as wireless telecommunications devices.
The law, Act 706 of 2017, also clarified that activities such as accessing a social networking site were prohibited, in addition to texting.
"These smartphones are a huge distraction for drivers," Bond said in a phone interview.
Also in 2017, Bond sponsored a failed bill to expand the definition of felony negligent homicide to refer to "engaging in wireless interactive communication."
Bond said lawmakers are currently discussing possible new laws taking on cellphone usage while driving, but he said he wasn't aware of any proposals to stiffen penalties for drivers using cellphones who are involved in causing fatal accidents.
Data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for 2017, the most recent year available, list five fatal motor vehicle crashes in Arkansas that involved drivers with a "related factor" of cellphone usage. The national total for the year was 401 fatal crashes involving cellphone usage.
Laws vary by state when it comes to penalties related to the use of cellphones as a cause of fatal accidents.
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a judge last June sentenced a 35-year-old man to three concurrent sentences resulting in a maximum of 10 years in prison in a texting case tied to the deaths of a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old girl after a motor vehicle collision, according to The Gazette, a Cedar Rapids publication.
Keith Furne was convicted of two counts of homicide by vehicle and one count of reckless driving resulting in serious injury, The Gazette reported.
A 2015 report by the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research found that states -- including Alaska, Illinois and Utah -- specified felony penalties as possibly resulting from texting while driving if there is a fatal crash.
Police in the UA case could not conclude if excessive speed was a factor in the crosswalk incident, according to the case report, which noted that the posted speed limit was 25 mph. The driver of a 2011 BMW X3 SUV was traveling south on North Garland Avenue, and Torres was walking west in the crosswalk. The driver stated that as she approached the crosswalk, she saw a pedestrian in the median between northbound and southbound traffic.
After looking down to access her phone, "when she looked up, she observed [Torres] crossing into southbound lane 2 and struck her," the report states. The BMW was traveling in the lane closest to the median when the accident occurred at 2:52 p.m., according to the report.
The crosswalk is west of Garland Avenue Center, which contains some shops. The police report states that a Subway sandwich bag with food and a box of Cheez-Its were among items found in the street after the accident.
Capt. Gary Crain with UA police said distracted driving is a problem "not only on campus, but everywhere people are driving."
The campus participates in safety events, including an annual Crosswalk Safety Awareness Day in October. A message to pedestrians is to "make sure the vehicle is actually stopping before going into the street," Crain said.
Metro on 03/15/2019