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N.H. Supreme Court rejects appeal in texting-while-driving case

Chad Belleville is on trial for assault in Merrimack County Superior Court following a December 2010 traffic accident in Pittsfield that left Donald Flanders III with a traumatic brain injury; Wednesday, August 25, 2012. 

( Alexander Cohn/ Monitor staff)

Chad Belleville is on trial for assault in Merrimack County Superior Court following a December 2010 traffic accident in Pittsfield that left Donald Flanders III with a traumatic brain injury; Wednesday, August 25, 2012. ( Alexander Cohn/ Monitor staff)

When Chad Belleville chose to focus on a text message instead of the road long enough to allow his Ford Explorer to drift across two lanes of traffic until it struck a car carrying a family of five, he went beyond simple distraction, the state Supreme Court said in a unanimous decision released yesterday.

“This was more than a case of momentary inattention, such as might be caused by changing a radio station or sneezing,” Justice Carol Ann Conboy wrote in the court’s decision. The ruling rejects Belleville’s appeal of his 2012 second-degree assault conviction for which he is serving a sentence of 3½ to seven years in state prison.

The accident that occurred just two days before Christmas 2010 resulted in a permanently changed Flanders family. The only son of Tressa and Donald Flanders remains in Belknap County Nursing Home in Laconia with head injuries he suffered in the crash. D.W. Flanders, as he is called by his family to differentiate him from his father and grandfather of the same name, is still being fed by a tube, and he has not spoken or walked since the accident, his mother said yesterday.

“To me it’s a small victory because D.W. is still the way he is,” Tressa Flanders said, “(Belleville) gets out, and he will have his normal life like he used to. D.W. does not have his life anymore.”

Belleville, who is from Barnstead, appealed the lower court’s decision by claiming prosecutors failed to prove he acted recklessly in the accident.

When prosecutors chose to say Belleville behaved in a reckless manner that December evening on Route 28 in Pittsfield, they made their case more difficult, said Deputy Merrimack County Attorney Catherine Ruffle.

“Recklessness is actually a higher standard to choose,” Ruffle said yesterday. “Negligence is the lower bar and recklessness is the higher.”

In its decision, the court clarified the legal standards for recklessness and negligence.

“A person is reckless if he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial risk . . . whereas one is negligent when he fails to become aware of a substantial risk.”

The court emphasized the amount of time Belleville remained inattentive before the accident as a key source of its decision to find Belleville reckless in his actions that night. Besides hitting the Flanders family’s vehicle, which was carrying Donald and Tressa Flanders, their son and two daughters, Belleville’s vehicle also struck a car traveling behind the Flanderses before stopping in a field next to the road.

“During the time he spent looking down at a text message, rather than paying attention to the road, the defendant drove across the median, which was approximately the width of two lanes and set off from the travel lanes by two sets of solid, double yellow lines, and entered into the opposite lane of traffic,” Conboy wrote.

The court concluded that the risk Belleville took in looking at the text was “substantial and unjustifiable.”

Ruffle said the trial judge chose not to release the content of Belleville’s text messages, and it was not determined whether Belleville was under the influence of drugs or alcohol that evening. The court based its decision on the facts related to the lapse in attention, she said.

Ruffle said not every case of distracted driving that gets prosecuted in the state will result in such a harsh sentence.

“I have to emphasize so much that these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis,” Ruffle said.

Scott Murray, the Merrimack County attorney, added, “Hopefully, people will consider the huge potential cost before focusing their attention on the smart phone rather than the road.”

As for the Flanders family, life has not, and will not, return to a normal state, Tressa Flanders said. She and her husband have separated, in part due to the strain of a physically and emotionally broken family following the accident. Her son, D.W., is improving, but the boy that she said dreamed of joining the Marines has now only relearned the alphabet. He knows who he is, she said, and he remembers the young man he was before the crash that shattered the left side of his face.

“He’s the type of kid that any mom would be proud of,” Tressa Flanders said. “He would give you the coat off his back to keep you warm. If you needed something, he would find a way to buy it without being asked.”

(Daira Cline can be reached at 369-3306 or dcline@cmonitor.com.)

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