DPS: Driver who killed officer was texting and driving

Scene on SR101 where officer was killed

Law enforcement officers face significant risk of injury and death from traffic incidents; it’s a serious occupational hazard; The leading cause of death for police are … traffic collisions — not shootings or other attacks, and very few of the collisions involve high-speed chases. Just run-of-the-mill crashes where inattentive or otherwise impaired drivers crash into them.

Just how inattentive do you have to be to not be able to not notice an emergency vehicle with flashing lights? Apparently so much so that that driver will be charged with a crime, as Jorge Espinoza found out after killing DPS Officer Tim Huffman near Yuma in 2015. Espinoza was charged with 2nd Degree Murder, and convicted of Negligent Homicide and sentenced to 6 years in prison.

Arizona continues to lack a statewide cell ban (see news about city of Glendale, below); but the problem with  flagrantly bad driver incidents in general continues to be lack of investigation along with lack of prosecutorial will to pursue cases. The case of Officer Huffman is the exception that proves the rule.  Perhaps the case of Officer Townsend will be too.

The driver here was arrested on suspicion of a litany of charges, though that’s a long way from actually bringing charges, and longer still to any conviction. The message from the justice system in Arizona is clear: if you are drunk or chemically impaired and kill someone as a result, the hammer will come down hard. Otherwise, anything goes; unless you have the bad luck to kill a police officer.

In related news, Glendale is the latest of a whole bunch of localities that instituted handheld cell restrictions. Can you say ‘patchwork’? At the same time, it’s not at all clear these sorts of restrictions are effective at dissuading drivers from engaging in dangerous behaviors.


Driver who hit, killed Salt River officer while allegedly texting posts bond
David Baker Updated 14 hrs ago | Posted on Jan 8, 2019 19

… Sanstead is facing charges including manslaughter in connection with the Tuesday night wreck that killed Officer Clayton Townsend.

…While Townsend was standing at the driver’s side door of the white passenger vehicle he stopped, a black passenger vehicle entered the right-side emergency lane and collided with the white passenger vehicle and then hit the officer.

…According to DPS, Sanstead told detectives he was texting when his vehicle struck the police officer. A witness told DPS that Sanstead’s vehicle crossed over two traffic lanes before hitting the officer.

Sanstead, who has no previous record, was arrested and booked into jail for manslaughter, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and endangerment. His attorney told a judge Sanstead is a licensed massage therapist and is married with children. He’s due back in court for a preliminary hearing on Jan. 17.

Criminal Case

There’s video of the initial appearance the defendant was released on $100,000 bond. Nothing showing in Maricopa County Superior court docket; not sure how that can be, and criminal prosecution seems unlikely, in spite of posturing by authorities. Maricopa County prosecutors ought to take a page out of Yuma County’s book…

There was a sortof puff piece surrounding this story where a reporter reached out to an attorney not affiliated with the case, Jeffrey Mehrens: Defense attorney weighs in on charges against driver involved in police officer’s death and despite the sickening, whether or not true, things he says, such as how since “everybody” looks at their phones and therefore it cannot be a “substantial risk”… he’s quoted as saying something that demonstrably false “Mehrens said he’s never seen or heard of a distracted driving case charged as manslaughter”. As mentioned above, distracted driver Jorge Espinoza was charged with 2nd Degree Murder, and convicted of Negligent Homicide and sentenced to 6 years in prison in Yuma county.

… much time goes by …

The driver in this Jan ’19 incident was finally indicted on manslaughter in Dec 2020. That it takes this long to even bring charges speaks volumes about the sorry state of holding drivers responsible for their actions behind the wheel.

The news piece correctly notes that manslaughter is a class 2 felony; and go on to state that the court documents alleges the crime was a “dangerous felony because the offense involved” a vehicle. The reporter states if convicted would result in 5 or 12.5 years on prison (presumptive / aggravated), and offers 28-702 as a reference. This is incorrect, sentencing for dangerous felonies would be per 28-704, not 702, and the presumptive is 10.5 with a maximum of 21 years. See sentencing.

All Charges Dropped

As the case drags on, azcentral reported in June 2021 that “His defense attorney (Lawrence Kazan), in court filings, suggested Sanstead may have had a seizure behind the wheel”, and says that he wasn’t using the phone at the time of the crash. And although that may contradict the original story floated by DPS, prosecution needs (only) to show recklessness  “Prosecutors said that grand jurors were plainly told that this was a distracted driving case, not necessarily one that involved texting. Paine told the judge that the grand jury was told that Sanstead could have been distracted by his radio or by simply looking down”.

A few days later, a judge ordered the case back to grand jury, and the prosecutor announced shortly thereafter they would not seek a re-indictment so that effectively all charges are dropped. That long-ish news story relates other heretofore unreported details, e.g. “…Prosecutors also said that a witness needed to prove that Sanstead was distracted while driving would not be available to testify due to pending criminal charges in another state”.

In the end, this case sheds no light whatsoever as to what cases a prosecutor will take up (seek indictments), or how they claim to be defining recklessness (for manslaughter) or negligence (for negligent homicide)  —

 'Recklessly' means... that a person is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk ...

'Criminal negligence' means... that a person fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk... see here for references

It seems likely there are other worthy cases the prosecutor flatly declines (“declination”); and that the deciding reason to go to a grand jury was because the victim was law enforcement (see e.g. death of DPS officer Tim Huffman)

Another Successful Distracted Driver Prosecution

This CAN be done.

Attorney Ann Groninger writes at bikelaw.com about a wrongful death lawsuit involving a distracted driver in North Carolina which resulted in the driver pleading guilty to misdemeanor death by motor vehicle, and ultimately a $4.5 Million jury verdict for wrongful death including punitive damages.

The driver was doing it all in constant fashion for much of the time behind the wheel… texting, emailing, phoning, etc. The driver says the bicylclist swerved/drifted from the shoulder into the traffic lane, where he was unavoidably struck; no evidence supported that claim.

In this case the police analyzed the driver’s phone and records; establishing a pattern. The driver also, according to Groninger had a very poor driving history; and these facts were not allowed to be introduces at the civil trial (not sure why).  The civil case would be named something like Rotberg v. Rutledge ( ).

One wonders what exactly is police procedures here in Arizona are? Why do they never (rarely?) seek to obtain records as part of investigations, particularly in obvious set-ups for distracted driving like any of the many “drifting” and/or “strike-from-behind” collisions? We know that drivers who cause crashes are prone to lie or do just about anything to deflect responsibility; the more obvious is fleeing the scene entirely (a criminal felony offense); drivers all know it’s dangerous to use a cell phone in any capacity while driving so it’s easiest and safest for them to just lie.  In the vast majority of cases police don’t bother to follow up. And even when caught in a lie, there’s no downside (the driver of the now-famous Uber fatality initially lied about watching TV on her phone)

As an aside there’s an interesting fact about how impeding can’t apply to bicyclists made by Groninger, see bicycles-are-not-motor-vehicles-and-why-it-matters/#civil

6 thoughts on “DPS: Driver who killed officer was texting and driving”

  1. What are the laws in Arizona that allow him to be charged? In Florida, killing someone while being distracted is not a criminal offense. Happens to cyclists all the time and the driver is not prosecuted.

    Are drivers who kill cyclists driving while distracted also charged, or is it just when cops are victims?

    Ed responds:
    Arizona, by the way, has no “vehicular homicide” law, just the general purpose homicide statutes; they are listed here in case you’re interested…so e.g. to prove manslaughter, the conduct must be found to be reckless, which “that a person is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk …
    of such nature and degree that disregard of such risk constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation”

    I really don’t think that not bringing charges against drivers who kill cyclists is a cyclist thing; in other words, it doesn’t matter what mode of transportation the victim is using. There are plenty of motorist-victims where a driver is not charged, too. So, yes, I think the driver here being arrested stems from the status of the victim being an on-duty officer; though in the “eyes of the law” that’s not supposed to matter.
    The usual precautions apply: it’s early in the investigation, I don’t know what I don’t know, every case is different, we won’t know for some time if the driver will be actually charged, etc, etc,

  2. “but the problem with these sorts of flagrantly bad driver incidents in general continues to be lack of investigation along with lack of prosecutorial will to pursue cases.” So true!

    How often have we seen reports of a pedestrian or bicyclist mowed down by a driver and the police can only think to report “speed was not a factor”?

  3. Not sure of the laws in Fla., but I think they are similar when it comes to manslaughter. We’ve had two deadly car on bike accidents recently. In one case a 92-year old woman mowed down four rides. Her family said they’d been trying to get her to give up driving. On the day of the accident, a state trooper said the cyclists were making an improper lane change, though he could not have possibly talked to them as they were all in the hospital.

    In another case, a woman admitted she was distracted trying to get something out of her glove compartment when she killed two cyclists.

    So far, no charges in either case.

    I have no proof, but I’ve heard enough stories to believe that cops routinely find fault with the cyclist rather than cite the driver.

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