A Galloway Township man was acquitted of vehicular homicide Thursday, despite being legally drunk when he fatally struck a bicycling teen in 2009.
Almon Taylor Jr., 43, was intoxicated and reckless when he hit Cody Sanchez, 13, while driving his son to football practice at about 6:30 p.m. July 28, 2009, Superior Court Judge Kyran Connor ruled. But a jury found Taylor was not criminally liable for the Galloway teen’s death.
“The jury rendered a very fair and just verdict,” defense attorney Joseph Levin said. “This was a tragic accident in which a young boy sadly lost his life. My client and everyone involved has always been saddened and sorry about his passing. Having said that, we always maintained that Mr. Taylor was not the cause of the tragic accident.”
Sanchez and three friends were riding along the Galloway Township bike path when they headed onto Redwood Avenue in a line, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Diane Ruberton told jurors. The first three boys made it across safely, but Sanchez collided with Taylor’s sport utility vehicle and was killed.
Levin presented evidence that included a State Police investigator’s report that Sanchez’s failure to stop before proceeding into the street caused the fatal collision. He also argued that brush lining the bike path caused a sightline shorter than the distance needed to stop.
“This case really came down to the old parental warning, ‘Don’t run or ride in the street without looking,’” Levin said outside court following the verdict Thursday.
“If he was the first person out of the trail, we probably wouldn’t be here,” Ruberton said in her openings. Instead, she told the jurors, Taylor didn’t notice the first three boys because he was drunk.
A blood test found his blood-alcohol level was .16 — twice the legal limit.
Taylor told police at the scene that he had one or two Coors Lights after getting home from work that evening. But an expert testified that to test .16, the number of beers would have to have been closer to 10.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed with the verdict, and I’m very sad for the Sanchez family,” Ruberton said. “This office will continue to vigorously prosecute anybody who drinks and drives, threatening the safety of the people of Atlantic County.”
While she said she did not know what the jury’s reasoning for reaching its verdict was, she said the law is strict in showing liability and that Taylor caused the collision.
“That’s why we need so many (driving under the influence) statues that we don’t have,” she said.
New Jersey’s laws on drunken driving have received added focus recently after Anderson Sotomayor, 45, of Vineland, was arrested on driving while intoxicated charges five times in as many weeks. Unlike many other states, driving while intoxicated is a motor-vehicle violation in New Jersey and not a criminal offense.
In June, an Assembly committee approved a bill that would make some drunken driving offenses a criminal act, and would allow judges to set bail and revoke the licenses of drivers with repeat offenses within a particular period of time. Since the bill moved forward, Sotomayor had a sixth arrest.
Neither Levin nor Ruberton could remember a case where a person who was found to be drunk behind the wheel was acquitted of vehicular homicide.
“Clearly, the judge found (Taylor) guilty, and he heard the same evidence that the jury heard,” Ruberton said. “He also was guilty of recklessly driving based upon the same evidence the jury heard.”
Taylor has at least two previous drunken driving convictions, but there are legal questions since they are more than 10 years old.
He will be sentenced on the drunken driving and reckless driving charges Aug. 24. If the previous convictions are allowed to weigh in, he could face as long as 180 days in the Atlantic County Justice Facility and lose his license for as long as 10 years.
If he had been convicted of vehicular homicide, he would have faced five to 10 years in prison.
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