The family of Jason Smith asked state senators Tuesday to spare other families the distress of an unjust system for punishing those who commit vehicular homicide in a reckless manner.
Smith, 36, was killed when his car was hit broadside in Pasco by a pickup speeding to flee police in April. His death has inspired legislation to toughen sentencing for the crime.
“Nothing we are doing here will bring my brother back or sentence this guy further,” said Matt Smith, the younger brother of Jason Smith. But changing the law could help the next family to experience such a tragedy, he added.
Matt Smith testified before the Washington State Senate Law and Justice Committee by videoconference from Pasco. His parents were present at the hearing in Olympia. The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, with help from Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant.
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Miguel A. Paniagua, who was driving the pickup, was sentenced to 8 1/2 years in prison, the maximum. The sentence was only possible because Paniagua fled the scene after he hit and killed Smith, Sant said.
Why doesn’t the current law cover this?
Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner
The sentencing guidelines now are harsher for not stopping after causing a fatal accident — even if it occurred while driving reasonably — than it is for killing someone by operating a vehicle recklessly, Sant said.
A charge of vehicular homicide in a reckless manner also carries less than a third of the penalty under sentencing guidelines as vehicular homicide under the influence.
“Why doesn’t the current law cover this?” asked Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner.
That’s the same question the Smiths had, Sant said. He believes it was an oversight in the sentencing guidelines.
The bill sponsored by Brown would put vehicular homicide by reckless means at the same level of seriousness as vehicular homicide by DUI and also first-degree manslaughter.
If a person were hunting, for example, and caused the death of a fellow hunter by reckless behavior, the charge likely would be first-degree manslaughter, Sant said.
Obviously, we were horrified.
John Smith, Jason Smith’s father
It does not make sense that causing a death with the reckless operation of a 3,000-pound vehicle would not be treated as seriously, he said.
Prosecutors still would have options in charging vehicular homicide, he said. They could choose a less-serious charge of vehicular homicide by disregard for the safety of others.
Under the current law, the sentencing guidelines for Paniagua for vehicular homicide in a reckless manner called for a range of three years and 10 months to eight years and one month. The new standard range for an offender like Paniagua would be 10 years to 13 years and two months.
On April 2, Pasco police tried to pull over the pickup driven by Paniagua, then about 24, for a traffic violation. Paniagua, a documented gang member and convicted felon wanted for failing to pay court fines, sped away from the officer.
Police called off the chase after a few blocks for safety reasons, but Paniagua continued to drive at speeds up to 100 mph until he hit the Honda Accord sedan driven by Jason Smith.
Nothing we are doing here will bring my brother back.
Matt Smith, Jason Smith’s brother
Paniagua was driving 85 mph in a 35 mph speed zone, the Smith family said.
The family has been told that with good behavior Paniagua could be released in just three and a half years, Matt Smith said. His father wiped away tears as his younger son talked about his brother.
“This is very dear to our hearts,” John Smith said.