Cops blame texting in man's death

Lori Reineke

Lori Reineke

DULUTH -- Eastbound on Sugarloaf Parkway in her 2008 Ford Edge, Lori Reineke had a green light at the intersection where she fatally struck James Eaton III on the night before Halloween last year, authorities said.

Neither speed nor alcohol nor drugs factored into the collision that killed the 48-year-old at the scene, near Meadow Church Road and a Kroger shopping center, police said.

Yet three months later, Reineke was arrested on felony charges more typically reserved for impaired and otherwise wild drivers. It's the first case in Gwinnett County Police Department history in which text-messaging has served as a basis for felony vehicular homicide charges, officials said.

"If the driver had been paying attention, she would have most likely seen the person crossing the street and would have reacted accordingly," said Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli. "This is the first case like this for the county."

But in the face of mounting legislative pressure and a national focus on the dangers of cell-phone use in vehicles -- an issue championed by media titan Oprah Winfrey -- the ground-breaking case might not be the last of its kind.

The prevalence of hand-held device usage -- be it texting, e-mailing or simply talking on cell phones -- among drivers is forcing accident investigators to be mindful of what role technology may have played in crashes, said Gwinnett police spokesman Officer Brian Kelly.

On a case-by-case basis, investigators "determine if the extent of that distraction would rise to the level of a criminal violation," Kelly said.

Gwinnett police arrested Reineke, owner of an online marketing service, at her Duluth home Friday. Her attorney, Larry Delan, called the police allegations baseless. Dark, rainy conditions more likely contributed to the accident, he said.

"What we can categorically say is she was absolutely not texting at the time of this incident," Delan said. "We are pretty shocked by (the allegations) ... and disappointed."

Police disagree.

The months-long investigation found that Reineke was "text-messaging and not paying attention to the roadway" before impact, according to her arrest warrants. She's charged with vehicular homicide, reckless driving, failure to exercise due care and engaging in actions which distract from the safe operation of a motor vehicle.

She posted $34,900 bond and was released from jail a day after her arrest.

Georgia's homicide by vehicle statute provides a wide range of punishment, depending on circumstances in which the offense is committed. Standard sentences for first-degree vehicular homicide, the felony version, can run between three and 15 years.

Lawmakers have called for a clampdown on drivers to curb crashes related to cell-phone distractions.

Legislation proposed last month -- House Bill 938 -- would prohibit drivers from sending or reading text messages while behind the wheel.

Under the law, offenders would incur a $50 to $100 fine and points would be assessed on their licenses. Drivers involved in an accident while texting would face a 90-day suspension of their licenses.

Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, a co-sponsor on the bill and chairman of the House Committee on Motor Vehicles, has told the Post that texting while driving would likely be a secondary offense when enforced. Secondary offenses can warrant citations after a driver is stopped for other violations.

Reineke's isn't the first arrest recently to hinge on text-messaging.

A 19-year-old Lilburn man was hospitalized last month with head trauma after crashing into a telephone pole while sending a text message to a friend, Lilburn police said. He was charged with failure to maintain lane and improper use of a cell phone while driving.

The allegations, police say, can serve as a cautionary tale for Gwinnett drivers.

"Drivers need to be cautious and aware that their primary task behind the wheel of a motor vehicle should always be safety," Kelly said. "Their safety and the safety of those sharing the roadways with them."