In September 2012, an Orange County man was sentenced to one year in jail, reported the Orange County Register. The defendant, Jose Luis Gomez Nava, had driven while under the influence of laughing gas, killing one of his friends and injuring two others.
“Impaired driving claims thousands of lives every year in the United States,” explained Orange County car accident lawyer James Ballidis, “which is why laws are in place to deter people from driving while intoxicated and to punish those who do.”
Nava pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence while intoxicated. Under California sentencing guidelines, Nava was also supposed to have his sentence enhanced because he had caused injury to more than one victim. Superior Court Judge Gerald Johnston sentenced Nava to just one year in jail. This sentence was issued against recommendations from the Deputy District Attorney, who argued that Nava’s behavior at the time of the accident was highly risky.
Johnston, however, believed that deterrence wasn’t necessary to prevent Nava from further wrongdoing. His reasoning was that Nava had been seriously injured in the crash. He suffered burns and brain trauma and, according to the Judge, would likely never drive again.
The decision of Judge Gerald Johnston drew much criticism, as many agreed with the Deputy District Attorney that Nava had engaged in extremely dangerous behavior. In light of the death he caused, the laws he broke and his careless disregard for the law and public safety, Nava will suffer very few legal consequences.
Under California Penal Code section 191.5, which addresses gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, Nava could have faced as long as 10 years in prison, plus additional time as a result of sentence enhancements because there were multiple victims.
The penalties for gross vehicular manslaughter are more severe than those for vehicular manslaughter, in large part because driving while intoxicated is such a serious social problem that legislators take a strong stance to try to prevent impaired driving and punish it harshly.
It could be argued that the judge’s actions were appropriate because prisons are not equipped to treat those who are facing medical problems like those that Nava is now coping with. Further, burdening the taxpayers with the cost of Nava’s incarceration and medical care may not be advantageous since Nava is incapacitated by his injuries.
However, while it is true that Nava may be suffering as a result of what he did, there are many reasons why Nava should have been given a longer sentence, not the least of which involves justice for the victims and their families.
Nava broke the law. When a law is broken, the crime is against the state. This is why, for example, domestic violence cases can be prosecuted even without the consent of the victim. If someone commits a wrong against the state, the punishment is supposed to come from the state. Violators of the law owe a debt to the state that must be paid in penalties, such as fines and/or imprisonment.
While it is true that courts can consider mitigating factors in sentencing, these factors are supposed to relate to justifications for committing the crime-not for occurrences after the crime. It is a dangerous precedent to set to suggest that just because someone injures him- or herself while breaking the law, he or she should not have to pay the consequences. Where is the line drawn? How badly does someone have to be hurt in order to avoid imprisonment for his or her actions? There is no answer to this question; therefore, the judge should not have taken things into his own hands and showed such lenience to Nava.
Finally, it is important to note that criminal sentencing is supposed to be a deterrent not just for the person who violated the law but also for others who might be considering breaking the law.
In this case, Nava made a choice that put everyone else on the road in danger. Innocent people could have been killed; passengers, in fact, were killed as a result of the choice he made. He needs to pay the legal consequences of what he has done by serving an appropriate jail sentence that is reasonable in light of the crime he committed.
Resources for accident victims and their families, such as books and articles on the injury and the wrongful death claims process, are available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.
If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to speak with an Orange County car accident lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596.