• September 26, 2023

After high-profile traffic deaths, prosecutors pledge to get tougher on unlicensed drivers

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – The tragic crash that killed a McKinley High student last month has led to a pledge from the city Prosecutor’s Office and courts to get tougher on chronically unlicensed and unsafe drivers.

Hawaii News Now has been investigating delinquent drivers for months and found that drivers in two recent fatal crashes had previous plea agreements that allowed them to avoid jail time for unlicensed driving.

Prosecutors say they are looking at that policy.

One of those recent fatal crashes involving an unlicensed driver left student Sara Yara dead.

Suspect in hit-and-run that killed teen had 164 traffic violations dating back 3 decades, records show

Mitchel Miyashiro is suspected in the hit-and-run crash.

Another recent crash drawing concern was last year: Brennon Cunamay is charged with manslaughter for the deaths of Ron and Michelle Hartman.

Both suspect drivers avoided jail for their prior offenses because of plea agreements offered by the city Prosecutor’s Office. Plea agreements in criminal traffic cases, such as driving without a license and excessive speeding cases, apparently increased when pandemic court closures created huge backlogs in traffic court.

House Speaker Scott Saiki’s district includes Kapiolani Boulevard, where Yara died, and he took special interest in how the suspect could be driving with such an extensive record.

“There was probably a culture that developed in the traffic court,” Saiki said. “Where these kinds of cases were just settled, and didn’t go to trial or didn’t bring about any kind of significant penalty.”

The law already provides jail as an option for repeat unlicensed driving and after he met with court officials and prosecutors, he expects it will be used more often.

“Sara’s family should know that I think there will be a reset within the Prosecutor’s Office as well as within the traffic court to be more proactive, and dealing with these kinds of cases,” Saiki said.

Prosecutor Steve Alm has repeatedly refused to be interviewed about plea agreement policy.

But his office issued the following statement:

“The Department is discussing appropriate sentences for criminal traffic offenses, including DWOL. We are considering asking for jail time for some repeat offenders.”

The Office of the Public Defender’s District Court Supervisor Jerry Villanueva warned that prosecuting unlicensed drivers for jail-eligible charges could contribute to court backlogs.

Villanueva said the focus should be on the worst offenders instead of many people who have lost licenses for minor reasons or can’t renew or navigate the application process.

He said each case should be reviewed on its own set of facts.

“Just to have a blanket, ‘This is what the deal is. And that’s it for everybody,’ it’s simply not fair And that’s what will cause the backlog from that,” Villanueva said.

State Sen. Chris Lee, chair of the Transportation Committee, agreed that existing laws are sufficient to deter unlicensed driving with the threat of jail.

He added if fewer cases come to court it will leave more time for the courts and prosecutors to concentrate on the chronic cases.

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