When a person causes the death of someone else, most people tend to assume that any criminal charge will be a felony. After all, murder, manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and intoxication manslaughter are all felonies of one degree or another. So when a plea agreement is struck that provides for a guilty plea to a misdemeanor in a death case, we take notice, and a report on a Travis County plea last week therefore caught our attention.

The case arose out of an accident about a year and a half ago. Police say that the driver of a car, Hernan Garcia-Segura, ran a stop sign and struck a tanker truck carrying over three tons of gasoline. The truck flipped onto its side, the gasoline caught fire, and the driver of the truck was killed. After the incident, a grand jury handed down an indictment charging Garcia-Segura with criminally negligent homicide, a state jail felony. Apparently, it was thought that running the stop sign did not amount to reckless behavior; had he been accused of recklessly causing the death, the original charge likely would have been manslaughter, a second degree felony.

It came as something of a surprise to many people when a bargain was struck which permitted a guilty plea to a misdemeanor – reckless driving – along with a sentence of two years’ deferred adjudication, 100 hours of community service, and attendance at a defensive driving course.

The question becomes, then, what was it about this case that was different enough to cause the extreme reduction in the level of the charge against the defendant. We think there were several issues that contributed to the result:

  • The defendant claimed in the police report that he was struck by the tanker, and not the other way around, and a defense expert was prepared to testify that Garcia-Segura was not speeding prior to the collision. We don’t know for sure, but this may have created proof issues for the prosecutor.
  • The defendant was driving with his mother in the car, and was on his way to pick up his sister. Perhaps this is not a compelling fact, but it certainly colors the overall picture.
  • There was no allegation here that Garcia-Segura had been drinking prior to the crash, that he had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or that there was any other behavior (such as texting) apart from careless driving involved in the collision.
  • But probably the most important factor was the position taken by the deceased man’s wife, who told the court she had forgiven Garcia-Segura for his actions.

Obviously, a number of factors saved the defendant from the possibility of a jail term of up to two years.