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Michael Napolitano Writes “State’s Push to Prosecute Drowsy Driving Controversy”

Napolitano_MichaelOn Friday December 7, 2012, a Bronx jury acquitted a tour bus driver charged with being so sleep-deprived that he crashed his bus killing 15 passengers in March, 2011 while traveling along Interstate 95 in the Bronx.

In one of the most high-profile cases to date, Ophadell Williams who was operating a tour bus on what prosecutors claimed was just a few hours of sleep when he crashed in the early morning hours, faced up to 15 years in prison if he was convicted of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

During the two-month trial, prosecutors presented telephone and car rental records from days leading up to the crash that showed Mr. Williams was awake and active when he should have been getting sufficient rest. The State had a sleep disorders specialist testify that based upon Mr. Williams’ records he averaged only about three hours of sleep a day for the three-day period before the crash. However, Mr. Williams’ attorney argued it was not sleep deprivation that caused the accident, but instead that he had lost control of the bus because he was cut off by a tractor trailer.

Drowsiness has also been cited in criminal prosecutions in Florida, New Jersey and Texas. Last month in Virginia, a bus driver was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for falling asleep behind the wheel in a crash that killed four passengers and injured dozens of others. Prosecution for “drowsy driving” follows successful efforts to criminalize other dangerous driving habits like speeding, drinking alcohol and using cellphones. However, unlike these other habits which can be documented by objective evidence, drowsiness is a personal state of mind and leaves no permanent record.

The difficult and subjective question that is left in cases involving drowsy driving is: just how tired is too tired to drive? Clearly, the Bronx jury was not convinced that the evidence presented by the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Williams was too drowsy to operate his tour bus. Mr. Williams who had been imprisoned for the past 15 months because he was unable to post the $250,000 bail was immediately released from custody.

The indictment and prosecution of Mr. Williams calls into question the controversial and aggressive actions taken by the Bronx District Attorney’s Office regarding this issue. However, the lack of criminality will not stop the multitude of civil suits which will follow from this accident.