Fatal crash blamed on cell phone user
Shawn Cates killed a woman, authorities said, crossing the center line on Dequindre last Thursday and smashing head-on into a car driven by a 55-year-old mother of three.
And his cell phone is at least partly to blame, they said.
In a case that underscores a national effort to restrict handheld cell phone use while driving, Macomb County prosecutors said Tuesday that they have charged Cates, 20, of Hazel Park with negligent homicide in the death of 55-year-old Diela Lucaj. They say Cates was talking on his cell phone when he drifted across the center line in Warren and killed the restaurant cook from Sterling Heights.
Since then, prosecutors said they have learned that Cates had drugs in his system -- cocaine, marijuana and amphetamines -- which will likely up the charge to involuntary manslaughter, punishable by 15 years in prison.
But even if the drugs hadn't been found, Cates -- whose lawyer said the crash was an accident, nothing more -- would still be facing the possibility of 2 years in jail if convicted of killing Lucaj while talking on his phone, authorities said. State Police and Macomb County officials believe it may be the first cell phone-related negligent homicide charge in Michigan.
"The cell phone is a significant distraction," Macomb County Assistant Prosecutor William Cataldo said Tuesday. "It's clear negligence. Somebody died. Somebody's going to pay."
The next time a cell phone plays into a wreck, Macomb County prosecutors won't hesitate to charge the driver again, Cataldo said.
"The mere fact that an accident occurred when someone was using a cell phone is not a crime," said Cates' lawyer, Shawn Patrick Smith.
At present, only three states -- New York, New Jersey and Connecticut -- ban handheld cell phones for drivers, though several more have restrictions on minors driving and talking on the phone at the same time. Michigan isn't among them.
Shelby Township, in Macomb County, was the first municipality in Michigan to adopt a distracted driving ordinance in 2002. Targeting more than just cell phone users, it makes it a civil infraction for a driver to pull his attention away from the road for any reason.
Officials said the ordinance still remains the only one in Michigan, though other municipalities, including Detroit, are looking at restrictions on cell phone use while driving. A state Senate committee is also considering legislation that would ban drivers under age 18 from using handheld cell phones and Palm Pilots.
While no hard numbers are available, one national study by the University of Utah estimated last year that cell phone distraction causes 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries in the United States annually.
Mantill Williams, spokesman for AAA's national office, said drivers should be banned from using cell phones or even headset devices, which are often seen as being safer.
"What makes it dangerous is the distraction of a conversation itself," he said Tuesday. "We think laws for careless and reckless driving in general could be strengthened. If you're distracted, you should be prosecuted to the fullest."
Authorities say Cates crashed his Chevrolet Silverado pickup head-on with Lucaj as she returned home from her son's Livonia house around 7:30 p.m. She died later Thursday evening at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.
Cates was charged after police learned from witnesses and his statements that he was talking on his cell phone as his truck struck Lucaj's Chevy Malibu.
Without the cell phone, Cates might not have initially faced charges at all. Now, Cataldo said his office is planning to increase the charge to involuntary manslaughter and operating under the influence of narcotics causing death.
Smith, Cates' lawyer, scoffed at the hospital findings.
"They don't have the levels or a state lab report," he said. "What they have right now is some guesswork. They still need to reconstruct the scene."
Lujac's daughter Gina Lujac said Tuesday after her mother's funeral that the tragedy makes her wonder about whether cell phones should be outlawed for motorists.
"How many times can I think of myself being on the phone when I'm driving?" she said. "It does make an impact."
Wendy Easterbrook, a crime analyst with the Michigan State Police Criminal Justice Information Center, said cell phone use isn't a major cause of accidents. Records show cell phone use may have contributed to five fatal crashes in the state in 2004.
She said it should still be a concern.
"There could be more crashes if we don't keep on top of people being responsible with these," she said. "The numbers could increase if we don't. ... Personally, I've seen many times where drivers cannot do two things at once. They're driving, talking away, cutting people off."
Cell Phone use, really? I personally think that it was probably the, oh, I don't know "cocaine, marijuana and amphetamines" in his system. I mean, perhaps if he weren't HIGH, he would have been able to stay in the lane with a cell phone.
Are cell phones a distraction? Certainly. But don't use the press to make loose 'possible' connections. I hate that.