Anyone who regularly drives I-70 coming into Denver from the mountains is familiar with the smell of smoking truck brakes. That’s a rough stretch of road even for the best drivers with the best equipment in the best conditions. The question regarding the horrific 2019 crash in which a truck slammed into stopped traffic, killing four people, is to what degree the driver was responsible.
People calling the crash an “accident” clearly are wrong. The term “accident” implies that events totally outside the driver’s control led to the crash. This crash was unintentional, but it clearly was no accident in the sense that the driver bore no responsibility for the outcome.
In video taken by another driver, we can clearly see the driver in question, Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, barrel right under a huge yellow sign posted over the right lane reading, “Runaway Truck Ramp 2000 Feet,” with three blinking yellow lights for emphasis. But instead of exiting to the right to take the runaway truck ramp, thereby averting catastrophe, Aguilera-Mederos swerved to the left, nearly driving a pickup truck off the left side of the interstate.
And, as a driving instructor who took reporter Rick Sallinger along the same route said, even after Aguilera-Mederos passed the runaway truck ramp, he squandered additional opportunities to get his truck under control. Almost every other professional truck driver, in the same circumstances, would have avoided the fiery crash.
The only reasonable conclusion here is that Aguilera-Mederos drove with extraordinary reckless negligence and thereby substantially caused the deaths of four people. A weighty criminal penalty therefore is appropriate. So then the question becomes, what punishment fits the crime? The driver was sentenced to 110 years in prison, which means, if that sentence holds, that he will likely die in prison.
Before we evaluate the justice of the sentence, let’s review a few other relevant facts of the case. Two basic things might mitigate the responsibility of the driver. If he was not adequately trained for the job, then some of the responsibility would fall on his employers. If the truck was not well-maintained, then some of the responsibility would fall on those charged with the maintenance.
The defense attorney, James Colgan, said that perhaps Aguilera-Mederos did not see the large bright yellow sign with flashing lights directly in front of him because he had “tunnel vision.” I find that extremely hard to believe, especially if he was adequately trained about the importance of runaway truck ramps. Colgan also suggested to me by phone that perhaps the people who maintained the brakes used substandard parts. That is a complex factual matter. Another possibility to consider is that the driver burned out his own brakes.
I can’t speak to the quality of the driver’s training or to the quality of the truck maintenance. All I can say here is that, if the driver’s training or the maintenance of the truck was sub-par, then that mitigates the responsibility of the driver and properly reduces the criminal penalty.
To potentially reach a firm judgment on those matters I’d need to investigate the facts of the case in great detail. What I can do is consider the appropriate criminal punishment assuming minimal responsibility of the driver (if outside factors played a substantial role) or maximum responsibility (if we was in fact well-trained and driving a truck in good repair).
Even if we assume maximum responsibility of the driver, a prison sentence of 110 years is unjustly overlong. Some murderers get lighter sentences. Clearly what is at play here is recklessness, not an intent to harm. Plus, the driver was only 23 years old at the time, before the prefrontal cortex is fully developed. Offhand, I’d say a sentence of less than ten years would be too lenient while a sentence of more than twenty years would be too harsh. I suspect that most people have similar intuitions.
Overcharging and sentencing extortion
Constitution and liberty-loving conservatives should be sensitive to the problem of overpunishment. If the punishment is way too severe given the nature of the crime, that unjustly infringes on someone’s liberty. It also violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”
So far, mostly people on the left have spoken out against the length of the sentence, although various truck drivers also have done so. Over four million people signed a petition at Change-dot-org declaring that the incident was not “a criminal act on the driver’s part” and that the driver should go free. Others, such as the state ACLU, seem to recognize the culpability of the driver but think the sentence is overlong. The Denver Post sensibly calls on the governor to reduce, but not throw out, the prison sentence. (Colgan tells me he’ll appeal the case.)
But not only leftists are worried. The libertarian Reason magazine ran a critical article about the sentence. As the Post reports, even the judge in the case criticized the overlong sentence but said his hands were tied by statute. (That strikes me as a bogus excuse; if the judge recognized the punishment as cruel and unusual, he should have tossed it and imposed something more reasonable.)
The basic reason that the driver got such a long sentence is that, in my view, the prosecutor dramatically overcharged him. Vehicular manslaughter charges were appropriate; assault charges probably were not. Then the jury convicted the driver on those overly severe charges, and statutory sentencing guidelines kicked in.
Tellingly, even the District Attorney in the case, Alexis King, seems to recognize the penalty is overly severe. She said (via the Post): “My administration contemplated a significantly different outcome in this case, but Mr. Aguilera-Mederos wasn’t interested in pursuing those negotiations. The jury’s thoughtful verdict reflects the strength of the evidence presented and recognizes the harm caused to the victims. We requested the minimum sentence allowed by law and welcome future opportunities for the court to reconsider its sentence, consistent with the mission and values of this office.”
Effectively, what happened in this case, and what happens in many criminal cases, is that the DA extorted the defendant to try to get him to surrender his constitutionally guaranteed right to a jury trial by threatening extremely severe penalties if the defendant went to court and lost. That the courts have not long since ended this obviously anti-constitutional practice of sentencing extortion is shameful. But that does not excuse DA King from her oath to uphold and defend the Constitution, rather than run the Sixth Amendment through her office shredder and then blame the defendant for her unjust actions. (See also Mark Silverstein’s comments on the topic.)
As you might expect, I have a few ideas for how the legislature could compensate for the courts’ grotesque negligence in this matter. First, the legislature could declare that juries must be notified of the criminal penalties at play given the charges. Second, the legislature could limit the disparity of sentencing between plea offers and trial charges. Offhand I would say that a person should have to face no greater than a 50% longer sentence by going to trial. Third, the legislature could further clarify and correct the specific legal language at play in this case to ensure that future defendants are appropriately charged rather than subject to DA sentencing extortion.
Although the legal matters are complex, ultimately the basic aim is a simple one: Let the punishment fit the crime.
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