Friends don't let friends drive drunk — or else they just might be charged with killing someone.
That is what has happened to Kenneth Powell, who is facing charges of manslaughter and other charges in the July 2000 death of New Jersey Navy Ensign John Elliott in a drunken driving accident.
Powell, 40, was not directly involved in the accident — he wasn't behind the wheel, wasn't a passenger in either of the vehicles involved, and was not charged with drunken driving.
But his friend Michael Pangle was. Hours before the fatal accident, Pangle had been arrested for driving while intoxicated and had a .21 blood-alcohol level — more than twice the legal limit in New Jersey.
Powell's troubles began when New Jersey State Police called him to pick up Pangle. He drove Pangle back to Pangle's car — and that was the last time he saw him alive.
Shortly afterward, Pangle, still intoxicated, drove his car head on into Elliott's vehicle, killing himself and Elliott and injuring Elliott's girlfriend.
The Debate of Accountability
Police say they fully informed Powell of Pangle's condition and that he was not to be allowed to drive. They have also said Pangle was clearly intoxicated, barely able to stand and his speech was slurred. Powell's common sense, they have argued, also would have told him that Pangle could not drive.
"The state police followed every rule, every regulation on the books," state police spokesman John Hagerty said at the time of Powell's indictment. "When [Powell] got to state police barracks, his license was checked and he signed a form saying he'd take the individual home. ... [Powell] didn't do his job, pure and simple."
But Powell says he did not realize Pangle was drunk. He and his attorney argue that the police are really responsible for the deaths of two people because they neglected to clearly and fully inform him of Pangle's condition.
"The state police did not tell Mr. Powell, certainly not in a clear and concise manner, Mr. Pangle's condition and his inability to drive," said Powell's attorney, Carl Roeder. "The state police essentially handed over the keys to Mr. Pangle and all the ability to get into this tragic accident. … We believe that this matter was totally mishandled by the state police."
A Law Too Late
Elliott's death prompted the New Jersey Legislature to pass a new measure, dubbed "John"s Law" in the ensign's honor, in April 2001. The law allows police to hold drunken drivers' cars for 12 hours before allowing them to reclaim their vehicles, and calls on state police to fully inform parties who pick up drunken drivers of the ramifications and consequences they would face if they put the driver back behind the wheel.
Powell was initially charged with allowing an intoxicated person to operate a motor vehicle after the accident. He could not be prosecuted under John's Law, since it was not in existence at the time of the crash. But the furor surrounding Elliott's death led to his indictment on charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault after the passage of the new law.
Powell and his attorney believe John's Law was needed. But they also believe it acknowledges the shortcomings of the government — and the New Jersey State Police — in the handling of drunken driving cases and the circumstances that led to Elliott's death.