Appeals court nixes drowsy-driving conviction, says transcript of police interview was wrong

An Oregon appellate court has reversed a young woman’s conviction for causing a fatal accident because of drowsy driving, based on a de novo finding that a transcript of her interview with police after the crash was erroneous.

Sierra Nicole Rigel, 17, was convicted as a juvenile, following a determination by the trial court that she “committed acts that would have constituted criminally negligent homicide and assault in the third degree if they had been committed by an adult,” as the state Court of Appeals recounted in its Wednesday written opinion (PDF).

She testified that she had suddenly felt tired, after getting about five hours of sleep the night before, and had been looking for a place to pull over and nap, the Oregonian reports. Before she could find a pull-off spot, she veered into oncoming traffic on Highway 101 after falling asleep near Gold Beach in 2010, striking and killing a motorcyclist.

Rigel presented expert testimony that a drivers can become drowsy and fall asleep very quickly. The prosecution in the Curry County case argued that she had time and opportunity to pull over, but didn’t.

Critical to the case was a transcript showing that Rigel, a high school student with top grades at the time of the crash, told an Oregon state police trooper: “I knew I should have pulled off.” But in fact on the actual recording she clearly stated “I knew I shouldn’t put it off,” the appellate court found.

“The actual statement made by [Rigel]—‘I knew I shouldn’t put it off’—uses the present tense, which, [Rigel] argues, does not lend itself to the same inference of admission because it indicates that [she] immediately began to look for the first turnoff when she became aware of her fatigue,” the opinion explains.

Agreeing with the defense that her correct statement put the facts of the case in a different light, the appellate court held that Rigel had not committed “a gross deviation from the standard of care” and hence should not be held criminally responsible for the accident. It reversed her conviction, under which she had been sentenced to a lifetime loss of her driving privileges, five years of probation and 100 hours of community service.

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