Veteran METRO Bus Driver Charged with Felony in Death of Pedestrian
Sadly, pedestrians are struck and killed as a result of a tragic motor vehicle accidents in Harris County, Texas, which carries one of the worst reputations in the country for vehicular fatalities. The fact that the driver was charged on-scene, however, is surprising because not all tragic fatality accidents are crimes.
Criminally Negligent Homicide Charges
The driver, Oscar Martinez, who had been driving METRO busses for 27 years, now faces a felony charge that carries a punishment of 180 days up to 2 years in the State Jail and up to a $10,000 fine. If prosecutors decide to allege that Martinez had used or exhibited a deadly weapon, namely a motor vehicle, in the commission of the offense, Martinez could face between 2 and 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
Vehicular Fatality Review Processes in Harris County
As a former Vehicular Crimes Prosecutor in Harris County, Texas, I'm intimately familiar with responding to fatality scenes and assisting law enforcement with their investigations. I'm also aware that Criminally Negligent Homicide charges usually do not come about this quickly because the Harris County District Attorney's Office often refers these cases for further investigation.
After the initial investigation is completed by law enforcement, the case is assigned to an assistant district attorney who confers with investigators regarding their opinion as to whether enough evidence exists to charge an individual with this serious offense. The prosecutor will then create a summary of the facts, complete with diagrams of the roadway and the officer's opinion as to whether charges should be filed and if so, what charge to file. The summary is then presented to a group of prosecutors who review the facts of the case and decide whether and what charges to recommend to a Harris County Grand Jury.
This process of having multiple layers of police and prosecutor review didn't happen for this veteran METRO bus driver, who was charged on the spot with a life-changing felony offense for which he will have to post bond, go to court, and most likely be suspended from his bus driving position during the pendency of his case.
What Makes an Accident a Crime?
Deciding whether to charge someone with Criminally Negligent Homicide that could potentially punish someone with prison time was one of the most difficult parts of my job when I was a prosecutor. These types of cases should not be taken lightly because a fatality is involved. But simply because someone lost their life as a result does not mean that a crime has occurred. This is a difficult distinction to make and it is one that requires all the evidence to be considered before making a charging decision.
In 2017, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the highest criminal court in the state, acknowledged in Queeman v. State,that under the law, criminal negligence is different from ordinary or civil negligence. Civil or ‘simple' negligence means the failure to use ordinary care, that is, failing to do that which a person of ordinary prudence would have done under the same or similar circumstances or doing that which a person of ordinary prudence would not have done under the same or similar circumstances.
In fact, the Court has stated that conduct that constitutes criminal negligence involves greater risk of harm to others that does simple negligence.
The determination, therefore, is whether a driver's failure to perceive the associated risk is so great as to be worthy of a criminal punishment. The Court goes on to state that criminal liability cannot be predicated on every careless act merely because its carelessness results in death or injury to another.
To make a charging decision so soon without a full investigation, prosecutors must have had probable cause to believe that Martinez's actions went further than simple negligence and that his actions actually caused the death of the unnamed woman.
This could have been determined by viewing any video from either METRO bus, which are equipped with multiple cameras to show both internal and external views, any speed calculations done on scene, any statements regarding how the accident occurred—driver inattention, who had the right-of-way, etc.—and any other evidence that the driver's actions went beyond carelessness.
Martinez will first face a Judge who will hear the allegations against him and set a bond at a soon to be determined court date.