Sentencing for DUI Accident that Killed Disney Employee: What We Can All Learn
On September 7, 2017, Stergios Economos was driving in Burbank, CA when he struck Michelle Ann Landes, age 64, who was walking to her job at Walt Disney Studios, striking three other vehicles and injuring at least one other person in the process. Landes was rushed to the hospital but soon died from her injuries. Last month, as KTLA reports, Economos was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading no contest to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and driving under the influence of a drug.
While tragic stories like these are far too common, this incident in particular holds several important lessons because of the details surrounding it. Let’s unpack this story and see what we can learn.
Alcohol Is Not the Only Substance that Can Impair You.
Notice that in the case of Stergios Economos, his DUI charge didn’t specifically result from alcohol consumption. His was a “drug DUI”, which derives from California Vehicle Code 23152(f) VC. The law reads, “It is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.”
The phrase “influence of any drug” makes interpretation of this law very broad. It means any drug that potentially affects your cognitive or physical abilities to drive—whether legal or illegal, prescription or over-the-counter—can be cited as evidence for DUI, even after the fact when blood test results come back. The police and prosecutors know which medicines can affect your performance behind the wheel, and they may press for drug DUI charges for any amount that could have had an influence. The list of possible drugs includes anxiety medications, muscle relaxers, prescription pain medications—even antihistamines, cold medicines and cough syrup have been cited for DUI from time to time.
The takeaway: When you’re involved in a crash, especially one that results in someone else’s injury or death, prosecutors may look in the direction of drug use even if your breathalyzer tests came back clean. The realm of drug DUI extends far beyond the boundaries of drugs that are typically abused or used recreationally. Don’t assume you’re safe to drive just because you feel safe to drive. Read the labels of any medicines you’re taking and avoid getting behind the wheel if those drugs have the potential for making you drowsy, affecting your coordination or your judgment, etc. And obviously, don’t drive if you’re using cannabis.
The Ambiguity of Drug DUI Didn’t Lessen the Penalty.
Another notable point in the Economos case is the severity of his sentence despite the fact that drugs are more difficult to measure in the body than alcohol.
To explain, police have a specific benchmark for measuring unacceptable alcohol content—namely, 0.08 BAC. Any reading above this number means the driver is legally DUI. With other types of drugs, this benchmark doesn’t exist, nor is there really a standard in place as to how much of a certain drug is too much. Granted, finding such a benchmark would be nearly impossible because every drug acts differently in the body and every person responds differently to different drugs.
That said, the ambiguity surrounding the amount of drugs in the defendants’ system, or the effect they had on him, didn’t seem to have any effect on the judge’s ruling. Even after pleading no contest, Economos received the maximum sentence allowed by law for gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
The takeaway: One might presume that the lack of a measurable standard for drug DUI could make it easier to argue in court that the presence of a drug did not affect the driver’s performance behind the wheel—but the Economos case show us that presumption is incorrect. If you drive under the influence of a drug and someone is hurt or dies as a result, don’t expect the courts to give you the benefit of the doubt. In that situation, the victims’ rights may very well be favored over yours.
The Charges May be Upgraded if the Victim Dies.
It’s a small detail that may be overlooked, but the victim, Landes, was alive when she was transported to the hospital. Had she lived, Economos might have been charged with DUI with injury, possibly which in many cases is prosecuted as a misdemeanor offense—with a penalty of up to a year in prison. However, once Landes was pronounced dead, Economos was charged with a felony—gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated—and was subject to a much longer sentence upon conviction.
The takeaway: If you are charged with DUI in an accident resulting in someone’s injury, don’t assume your charges are set in stone. Those charges can still be revisited and upgraded if the victim dies as a result of those injuries, even weeks after the accident occurred.
We Must All Remain Diligent.
When Ms. Landes woke up and got ready for work that fateful morning, she could not have predicted that someone under the influence of one or more drugs would run the red light and cut her life short. In a day when performance-altering substances are more accessible than ever, we must exercise care behind the wheel or even when crossing the street. We should never presume to know what a driver (or even a pedestrian) is going to do next. The law protects the rights of the victims, but it can’t necessarily prevent someone from becoming a victim.
If you have been arrested for a DUI offense in California, you need a skilled attorney to help you navigate what may be a costly outcome. Call our offices for a free evaluation.