Text-Reading Crash Conviction Upheld by New Hampshire High Court

By LYNNE TUOHY | February 12, 2014

The state’s highest court is upholding the assault conviction of a driver who was reading a text message as his car drifted across two lanes and into oncoming traffic.

The court’s ruling means that 30-year-old Chad Belleville will continue serving a 3 1/2- to seven-year sentence for vehicular assault and second-degree assault.

The court, in its unanimous ruling Tuesday, said Belleville was recklessly negligent when he took his eyes off the road long enough to nearly hit one vehicle and then smash into two others without braking. The December 2010 accident on Route 28 near Pittsfield caused traumatic brain injury to a couple’s teenage son in the first car he struck.

Sending a text message while driving has been against the law in New Hampshire since January 2010. It is a motor vehicle violation punishable by a $100 fine. Reading a text while driving is not explicitly against the law, though New Hampshire lawmakers this session are debating several measures to restrict a driver’s use of electronic devices.

Tuesday’s ruling is the second in a year involving felony convictions for distracted driving. The justices last year upheld the negligent homicide conviction of a woman who struck and killed a pedestrian in Franklin while talking on her cellphone. In that case, the justices concluded that even conduct that is allowed by law, including talking on a cellphone while driving, can be criminal if it results in inattention and distraction.

In both cases, the justices heard the arguments at a high school, knowing the cases would resonate with young drivers.

Belleville’s lawyer, David Rothstein, said he was still reviewing the decision. He confirmed that Belleville is still incarcerated. Rothstein argued in October – before 500 students at Concord High School – that Belleville taking his eyes off the road for the time it took to read the message did not rise to the level of felony recklessness. The justices disagreed.

“Looking down to check a text message for the length of time it took to cross over the median, enter into the oncoming travel lane, nearly hit one vehicle and hit two others without braking or attempting to evade collision was a gross deviation from the conduct of a law-abiding citizen,” Justice Carol Ann Conboy wrote. “A law abiding citizen would not have voluntarily remained inattentive for such an appreciable length of time over such a distance.”

The court noted that Belleville drove across the median, which was approximately the width of two lanes and offset by two sets of solid double yellow lines.

The court said Belleville’s case is different from circumstances of the court’s reversal in 2009 of three negligent homicide convictions against a man whose car crossed the center line and killed three motorcyclists in Thornton. The court in that case ruled the driver’s “two-second failure to keep his car in its lane” did not constitute criminal negligence.

The court said Belleville’s conduct “was more than a case of momentary inattention, such as might be caused by changing a radio station or sneezing.”

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