Supreme Court upholds texting conviction in Pittsfield collision
The state Supreme Court said Chad Belleville, 30, was recklessly negligent when he chose to look down at a text message long enough to allow his Ford Explorer to cross nearly three lanes of traffic into the opposite travel lane without returning his attention to the road.
“At no time did the defendant brake or take any evasive action. According to the defendant's own admission, he failed to notice any other vehicles until he struck the Flanderses' vehicle and went on to strike (Evan) Welch's vehicle,” the court said in upholding his second-degree assault conviction.
The crash happened on Dec. 23, 2010, on Route 28 near Pittsfield. Tressa Flanders was in the front passenger seat of a Subaru being driven by her husband, and their two daughters and teenage son Donald Flanders were in the back seat. Corey Pickering was driving directly ahead of them while Welch was in a Honda directly behind them.
Just before the crash, Pickering saw Belleville's SUV drift into the median lane and come within inches of his driver's side mirror. Pickering swerved to avoid being hit and then saw in his rearview mirror that the SUV hit the Flanders' Subaru.
Prior to the collision, Mrs. Flanders saw headlights from an oncoming vehicle and yelled to her husband to “watch out.” He tried to swerve to avoid being hit, but the SUV struck the driver's side of the car. Welch saw the Subaru “fishtail really suddenly” and saw its back end “explode into a lot of pieces.” He then saw “headlights coming straight” at him and the SUV struck his Honda. Welch skidded into the passenger side of the Subaru and both vehicles came to a stop on the side of the road. The SUV “traveled across a small field” before coming to rest.
Immediately after the crash, Mrs. Flanders “saw a gaping hole” in the back of the Subaru on the driver's side and noticed her son was no longer in the car. Making sure her daughters and husband were OK, she climbed out of the car to find her son lying “in a cradled position.” Donald Flanders suffered devastating injuries including a traumatic brain injury, loss of his left eye socket and a broken jaw.
According to the Supreme Court decision, Belleville erased the call history on his cell phone. Eight months after the crash, Belleville admitted to state police that he was checking a text message at the time of the accident. He said he did not see the Subaru and that, “I just looked down and the next thing you know I crashed.”
According to the unanimous decision written by Justice Carol Ann Conboy, “a rational trier of fact could have found that looking down to check a text message for the length of time it took to cross over the median, enter into the oncoming travel lane, nearly hit one vehicle, and hit two others, without braking or attempting to evade collision, was a gross deviation from the conduct of a law-abiding citizen, because a law-abiding citizen would not have voluntarily remained inattentive for such an appreciable length of time over such a distance.”
The court said Belleville's conduct “was more than a case of momentary inattention, such as might be caused by changing a radio station or sneezing.”
Belleville maintained there was insufficient evidence to prove he was either criminally negligent or reckless.
He also was convicted of vehicular assault and is serving a 3½ to 7 year sentence.