Felony Charges in Distracted Driving Case

ByABC News

April 16, 2001 -- A Las Vegas woman is facing a felony indictment for allegedly causing a deadly traffic accident while talking on a cell phone.

Local prosecutors say the case is the first of its kind in Nevada, and could be a landmark nationally.

Police say Karen Morris, 34, was traveling at 64 mph in a 45-mph zone while talking on her cell phone.

They say she ran a red light, then smashed into another car — killing two people, Leona Grief, 61, and Marcia Nathans, 65. A third passenger, 44-year-old Elliot Nathans, was injured and remains in serious condition. Morris and her 7-year-old daughter were treated for minor injuries.

Witnesses told police Morris was talking on her cellular telephone as she crashed and as she swerved around a line of cars at a previous crossroads and ran that red light, Clark County deputy district attorney Mary Brown told The Associated Press.

Morris' attorneys say the tragedy was an accident.

Case Could Be a Landmark

"The underlying facts are that she was speeding, running red lights and talking on a cell phone without paying full time and attention," she said. "The thing that makes this case memorable is the consequences. It's certainly a first in our area, and we're not familiar with any other cases ongoing."

Brown said a Cleveland motorist was convicted in 1993 of not paying full attention while driving. In December, a Naval Academy midshipman whose car slammed into another vehicle, killing its two occupants, while he fumbled with his cell phone was acquitted of manslaughter but convicted of negligence.

He was fined $500 for negligent driving and given four points against the revocation of his driver's license

When Inattention Is a Criminal Act

Morris was charged with three felony counts of reckless driving and two felony counts of involuntary manslaughter for the March 25th incident. If convicted on all counts, she faces up to 26 years in prison.

A local prosecutor said the use of cell phones while driving is legal. But if a driver causes an accident while using one, they had better be prepared to face the music.

"If you are inattentive because of that cell phone, you are violating due care... And if that contributes to a crash and someone is killed then you have committed a criminal act," prosecutor Gary Booker told KLAS television.

Cell Phones: As Bad As DWI?

Defense attorneys say the accident was nothing more than an accident. But Booker said recent studies suggest that using cell phones while driving is not just a nuisance for others on the road, it's a hazard almost on par with driving while intoxicated.

"The studies tend to suggest that using a cell phone renders you four times as likely to be involved in a crash," Booker said. "That's very nearly the same as alcohol, by the way."

Morris is free on $100,000 bail. She faces an arraignment on April 25.

Some nations have banned the use of cellular phones while driving. In the United States, many communities are considering similar moves. Brooklyn, Ohio, Marlboro, N.J., and Suffolk County, New York, are among those to have banned the practice.

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