Drivers who hit and kill pedestrians are rarely charged in those incidents, according to prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
When drivers are found criminally liable for collisions with pedestrians or for their actions after a crash, it is because they’re usually found guilty of driving under the influence or fleeing the scene.
“If somebody hits somebody and flees, then you could be looking at hit-and-run, because the driver has a duty to return to the scene and give information,” said Assistant Bibb County District Attorney John Regan, who specializes in prosecuting traffic fatality cases.
But in cases where driver intoxication may have played a role, Regan said, fleeing the scene can actually protect the driver from a DUI charge.
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“Under Georgia law, to prove a DUI, we have to prove that the person was intoxicated within three hours of operating the vehicle,” he said. If it takes longer than three hours to find the driver and administer a blood alcohol test, there’s no way to legally prove that the driver was drunk at the time of the accident.
Even if the driver was drunk when found, “his defense could have been, ‘I hit somebody and went home and started drinking,’” Regan said.
Aside from being charged with a DUI or fleeing the scene, a driver can be charged with hitting someone intentionally, as in the case of 31-year-old Tasha Yolanda Phillips. Police say she deliberately ran over her boyfriend, 24-year-old Martegus Johnson, in May 2014 during an argument in the Pio Nono Avenue post office parking lot.
“If you hit somebody with intent, we would charge you with murder,” Regan said.
The distinction between murder committed with a car and the lesser charge of vehicular homicide is that the latter is usually regarded as a type of “negligent homicide” and “the degree of that negligence is what causes it to be felony or misdemeanor,” Bibb County District Attorney David Cooke said.
NOT A SIMPLE STORY
The question of whether the driver is at fault isn’t always clear-cut, as in the case of Lamar Tyrone Howard.
Early in the morning of Oct. 23, 2013, Luther Allen Wright was walking down Magnolia Drive when a Honda CR-V hit him from behind, throwing him into the air, his head cracking the windshield as he landed.
Wright, 62, lived nearby at Sulfur Springs Retreat for the Elderly retirement home. His sister, Lula Holt, said her brother was probably walking down the street to buy cigarettes.
On the morning of the accident, Carline Tucker was sleeping in her Magnolia Street apartment when she heard “a little boom” that woke her up, she said.
Tucker went to her apartment window and saw a man lying in the street.
The driver, 38-year-old Howard, had a suspended license. After the accident, he carried the still-conscious Wright to his car.
Instead of calling the police, Howard drove to his girlfriend’s house.
Only after picking her up did they drive Wright to the hospital and call 911. Wright died of his injuries four days later.
Howard was scared that if police found out he was driving with a suspended license, he would be arrested, according to the police report. So he falsely claimed that his girlfriend was driving.
Police told Holt that “it took (Howard) four hours to admit that he was driving,” she said.
Holt said she wishes Howard had just left her brother in the road. She thinks he would have had a better chance of surviving the accident if first responders had tended to him instead of Howard. According to Regan and Cooke, the case never came to their office and instead went to the Office of the Solicitor, which handles misdemeanors.
Charges are pending.
CCJ student Marin Guta contributed to this report.