Red light crashes are often accidents, not crimes, law says

TAMPA — Terrance Mitchell knew the route by heart.

Drop off kid at day care. Head to gym.

His last memory before the crash was of stopping at U.S. 301, he told deputies. He did not notice the red light 0.3 miles ahead on Falkenburg Road that April morning. He did not remember cruising through it, about 10 mph over the speed limit.

Deputies say Mitchell, 36, did not brake before slamming into Scott Valentino's car, killing the 40-year-old Riverview father of two who loved death metal, Disney and the Washington Redskins.

It was an accident, deputies decided.

And even though accidents are also sometimes crimes, this one was not, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which decided this month not to charge Mitchell.

The case is closed. Mitchell only got a traffic ticket. To Valentino's sister, Ilisa Nickel, it's like the crash didn't happen. "There were no consequences," she said.

The outcome appears to be representative of similar cases across Florida.

A woman ran a red light in Tampa in the summer 2010, killing a bicyclist on the sidewalk. No charges.

A Naples man ran a red light in his pickup truck, killing a 76-year-old woman in 2011. No charges.

A Sarasota County woman ran a flashing red light, killing a 58-year-old woman also in April. No charges.

When alcohol is involved, criminal charges are filed. Sometimes investigators discover racing. Occasionally, the red light-running driver is fleeing law enforcement or going at extreme speeds.

Those cases often see arrests, made under Florida's subjective vehicular homicide statute. To make that charge, prosecutors must be able to prove that the person was driving "in a reckless manner likely to cause the death of, or great bodily harm to, another."

Unknowingly running a red light and slightly speeding is not included under that definition, said Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Mike Sinacore. Those are things drivers do on a daily basis and they usually do not kill someone, he said.

"It has to be beyond negligently taking your eyes off the road for a minute," he said.

There has to be some sort of willful or wanton disregard for safety. Otherwise, he said, many drivers are constantly on the verge of committing a criminal act.

Valentino's family is confused and sad. His wife, Carol Valentino, wonders why authorities didn't take Mitchell's driver's license or maybe sentence him to a few months in jail. According to state records, he has a history of speeding tickets — and she knows this.

"I just don't understand it," she said.

She has not heard from Mitchell.

Reached earlier this week, he says he has not tried to contact Carol Valentino out of respect. He is not sure she wants to hear from him.

Mitchell says he is traumatized by the crash. He thinks of it every day. Even though he says he does not remember what happened just before his vehicle slammed into the other, he feels like it is his fault.

He is scared to drive now. He avoids Falkenburg Road at all costs. He doesn't turn on television news for fear he will see a crash scene.

But he doesn't want sympathy.

"Scott and his family are the victims," he said.

Even though criminal court proceedings don't bring loved ones back, family members often find some comfort in the accountability. It is a tangible sign that society feels like the death was not right.

Carol Valentino and others like her do not get that.

After the 2010 crash that killed Tampa bicyclist Diane Vega, her family attended a civil trial in traffic court. Josefina Rodriguez, then 41, was accused of running a red light but was not charged, Tampa police said, because she was not impaired and did not appear to be weaving or speeding.

In traffic court, Vega's family members talked about their suffering and loss.

The judge reminded the crowd that accidents and tragedies happen every day. Rodriguez, who was not criminally charged, got a traffic citation.

Rodriguez left still not convinced she had run a red light.

Terrance Mitchell says he is ready if Carol Valentino ever wants to talk. He wants to look her in the eyes and say that he is sorry that it happened.

Then, he says, he will listen to anything she wants to say.

"Even," he said, "if she just wants to curse at me."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Red light crashes are often accidents, not crimes, law says 07/20/13 [Last modified: Saturday, July 20, 2013 12:25am]

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