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N.H. high court gets reading-text-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)

Chad Belleville of Barnstead was driving to pick up Chinese food in December 2010 when he looked down at his cell phone to read a text message.

“The next thing you know, I crashed,” he told a state trooper.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday in his appeal of his vehicular assault and second-degree assault convictions in a case Belleville’s lawyer said should strike a nerve in any driver with a cell phone.

Texting while driving is against the law in New Hampshire, but reading a text message while driving is not.

In Belleville’s case, prosecutors will argue his “persistent and continued inattention” led to the accident that left a teenage boy with a traumatic brain injury.

Belleville’s car crossed a median lane and barely missed one car, prosecutors said, before hitting the car in which Donald Flanders III was riding. Flanders was thrown from the car. Investigators ruled out speed and alcohol as contributing factors.

Belleville, 30, is serving a 3½- to 7-year sentence.

“It’s not a burglary or an armed robbery,” said David Rothstein, Belleville’s lawyer. “This is a case where you say, ‘Gosh, I might have done that. I have done that.’ ”

The circumstances are sure to resonate with the student audience who will attend Thursday’s arguments at Concord High School, a venue chosen as part of the court’s “On the Road” series to educate the public about the role and workings of the court.

Assistant Attorney General Diane Fenton in her brief likens the case to one the justices ruled on this year involving a woman who struck and killed a pedestrian in Franklin while talking on her cell phone. The court unanimously upheld the negligent homicide conviction of Lynne Dion of Franklin in the death of Genny Bassett in 2009.

In the court’s February ruling, Justice Carol Ann Conboy wrote that even conduct that is allowed, including talking on a cell phone while driving, can be criminal if it results in inattention and distraction. The justices heard arguments in that case at Monadnock Regional High School, a year to the day before they hear arguments in Belleville’s case.

Rothstein will argue that Belleville’s conduct wasn’t reckless. He cites the court’s reversal in 2009 of three negligent homicide convictions against Joshua Shepard, whose car crossed the center line and killed three motorcyclists in Thornton at the start of Laconia’s Motorcycle Week in 2006. The court ruled that Shepard’s “two-second failure to keep his car in its lane” did not constitute criminal negligence.

“I don’t know that looking down at your cell phone is different than looking back at your kid who spit up while you’re driving,” Rothstein said Friday.

Legacy Comments11

I agree with Waltham. Wireless eliminates taking your eyes of the road, but it does nothing about the fact that your attention is diverted to the conversation you are hearing. Playing the radio is like background music, but listening to a conversation requires you to respond. I am sure a small percentage of folks are good multi taskers, but most of us are not. Lately I see more and more drivers who are unpredictable. Cross the line in their lane and veer a bit in the lane you are in. So you think they are either drunk or on a cell phone. Speed up and slow down a lot. I see more headphones now, but basically I see folks moving their lips who are driving poorly.

I wonder if Rothstein would feel the same if his wife and child were dead because a driver was not paying attention. Would he defend the person that killed his family because they choose to not control the car. The law needs to be a simple law - if a driver does "anything" that distracts them and they allow the car to go out of their lane (either side) then they are guilty. It makes no difference what the distraction is, it is the total responsibility of the driver to maintain control of the vehicle. Mr. Rothstein is correct on one point, there is no difference between tending to a child throwing up and looking at your phone, they are both distractions. Just pull over and deal with both, don't kill someone else.

3 1/2 to 7 years is a very long time for a momentary lapse in judgment. I think that just living with what happened would be punishment enough.

How about receiving a traumatic brain injury for life, through no fault of your own?

you mean like the birth of another liberal?

Now that is the pot calling the kettle black. I would hide behind a username if I posted this kind of (pick your own adjective). Just in case you have missed it, no hiding here by me. Geoff Carson

It only takes a milli second to fire a gun too. Regardless of the texting law, operating a motor vehicle out of control is still illegal. Perhaps we should amend laws so only people who actually kill people pay a price. Talk to the victim about the price he has to pay for doing nothing wrong.

Cell phones should be shut off when a vehicle is in operation. End of story.

I agree with you to an extent but not totally. There should be no issue with use of a wireless headset or wired earphone.

It doesn't matter if it's a wireless headset or wired earphone. Your mind is not on your driving. You cannot do two things at once.

Totally correct Waltham. How did we ever manage all those years without cell phones? I also am getting tired of the obsession with folks who you are trying to talk to, who are texting. It is like everybody has ADD. Nobody seems to just listen to their own thoughts anymore on a drive or even just sitting in a waiting room. Nobody says hi how are you. All heads are down and fingers moving rapidly. I saw this waiting to see the dentist. I was the only one not texting. Nobody communicates face to face.

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