Drivers fleeing a crash with multiple victims can only be charged once, court rules

By: - May 16, 2022 11:48 am

The New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling comes in the case of a driver who killed two teen bicyclists and then fled the scene. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Drivers who flee crashes that leave multiple people dead can only be charged once with fleeing the scene, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday in an opinion that upholds the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition of multiple punishments for the same offense.

Judge Jose Fuentes, writing for the court, said justices based their decision in part on how lawmakers wrote a law intended to punish people who leave the scene of a fatal crash or fail to report they were involved in one. The lawmakers criminalized those actions without regard to how many victims die, Fuentes added.

“The number of fatalities caused by the accident is not an element of the second-degree offense codified” in state law, Fuentes wrote. “The statute’s plain language focuses on the driver’s response.”

The opinion is the first penned by Fuentes, who began serving on the state’s highest court temporarily in January as an interim justice because lawmakers have failed to act to confirm Gov. Phil Murphy’s nominee for the bench, Rachel Wainer Apter.

Monday’s ruling came in the case of Rashaun Bell, who was driving without a license at twice the speed limit in October 2017 when he hit two teenage boys riding bicycles in Jersey City, according to the opinion.

Bell, then 20, and his three passengers ditched their sedan and ran away. One boy died at the scene. The impact threw the other boy over a nine-foot fence, and he landed 27 feet below. He died at a hospital the next day.

Detectives found paperwork and other items belonging to Bell inside the car, and video showed him fleeing the scene, according to the ruling.

Police later arrested Bell, who was indicted on two counts of leaving the scene of an accident — one for each boy killed. The trial court rejected his lawyer’s attempt to have one of the counts dismissed, with the judge saying he should be charged for each boy who died.

Bell pled guilty to both counts, and a judge sentenced him to two consecutive five-year terms in prison, in accordance with a plea agreement, according to the ruling.

Bell appealed, and an appeals court reversed the trial court’s ruling, dismissed one of the convictions, and vacated one of his five-year terms.

Monday’s ruling affirms the appellate decision dismissing one of the convictions.

The justices reversed the appeals court’s decision to vacate one of Bell’s prison terms, saying the case should be remanded to the trial court to either negotiate a new plea agreement or schedule the case for trial.

That won’t happen, though, because Bell died last year. He was freed from prison after the appellate ruling but was gunned down in November in Jersey City.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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