Crime and punishment

Most traffic infractions in Arizona are strictly civil matters, if a driver is found responsible he or she is generally subject to a fine of not more than $250 (§28-1598), and no jail time is possible. Some infractions specify their own penalties, for example the “Three foot rule” (§28-735) includes enhanced penalties of up to $500 or $1000 if a motorist seriously injures or kills a cyclist when overtaking unsafely (the enhance penalty does not apply if a bike lane is “present and passable”).

A handful of infractions specify criminal penalties, for example DUI, excessive speed, reckless driving. These are in and of themselves relatively minor criminal offenses, for example excessive speed is a class 3 misdemeanor (the least serious criminal classification).

If the conduct results in a serious injury or death, AND the police/prosecutor believe that the conduct was “criminally” reckless/negligent, then we leave the realm of traffic law and enter the generic assault or homicide laws; i.e. Arizona has no  “Homicide by Vehicle” statute (perhaps we need one?). According to wikipedia, Arizona is one of only 3 states that lacks such a law. Vehicular homicide laws, though, are both a blessing and a curse — they make it easy for prosecutors to charge, but at the same time they are generally very low-level crimes (unless aggravated by, e.g., DUI).

That being said, there is one more statute of interest, §28-672, that “criminalizes” simple negligence when death or serious injury results, but only for a prescribed set of infractions:

  • §28-645(A)3(a): Running a red light
  • §28-729: failure to drive in one lane
  • §28-771: failure to yield to vehicle on the right (generally applies to uncontrolled intersections)
  • §28-772: Bad left
  • §28-773: drive out at stop sign (see also, 855B, below).
  • §28-792: Running down a pedestrian in a marked OR UNMARKED crosswalk
  • §28-794: Not exercising due care around a pedestrian
  • §28-797 subsection F, G, H, or I:  Disobeying various school zone rules
  • §28-855(B): Running a stop sign
  • §28-857(A): Disobeying school bus stop signs

 

There are a couple of related statutes, §28-675 and §28-676 , that have more serious penalties for exactly the same list of infractions as with 28-672, but apply if the driver’s license has been yanked (and only when yanked for cause relating to previous illegal bad driving).

Although the penalties are relatively minor, it would seem this is a good start. But. It appears to me that this law if rarely charged. Why not?

Ok, so here’s the thing. Despite what would have to be a very common crime, there appear to be no more than a handful of these cases (I’ve outlined a couple of them here). Consider that just in the city of Phoenix, every year there are ~ 160 fatalies, and ~ 1,600 serious injuries (there are ~ 16,000 injuries, and ~ 10,000 injury collisions.  The city’s stats don’t break down serious vs. non-serious. A 10% rate is to be expected). [These are the 2007 figures from the City of Phoenix]

So how many of these 1,700 or so cases result in 28-672 charges? The most serious recklessness cases become homicide/aggravated assault. In some cases, the driver is injuring/killing himself, so no charges would be possible. And the biggest exclusion is many of these don’t stem from a moving violation that is included in the definition.