DA: Texting no basis for felony charge

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Felony vehicular homicide charges have been downgraded to a misdemeanor for a Duluth woman accused of killing a pedestrian while text-messaging behind the wheel last year.

Gwinnett police have called the case the first in department history in which first-degree vehicular homicide charges -- a felony -- were based on evidence a driver was text-messaging.

A lengthy investigation led police to believe Lori Reineke was receiving or sending a text message on the night before Halloween when she fatally struck James Eaton III, 48, at a Sugarloaf Parkway intersection near the Arena at Gwinnett Center.

After reviewing several cases from Georgia appellate courts, Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter decided that driving while distracted -- i.e., texting -- was not enough to support another charge of reckless driving on its own.

In Reineke's case, reckless driving is the only applicable offense that would make vehicular homicide a felony. The felony in other instances is supported by charges such as DUI.

Porter said he made the decision Tuesday after consultation with senior prosecutors. He said a state law enacted last week that bans texting while driving had no bearing on his decision.

"Even if it was in effect (when the accident occurred), it wouldn't have made any difference," Porter said.

The misdemeanor charge has been forwarded to Gwinnett Solicitor Rosanna Szabo, who'll decide whether or not to move forward with prosecution.

Reineke's attorney, Larry Delan, called the prosecutor's decision a minor victory but hopes the case will be thrown out altogether.

Delan maintains his client was not texting at all while behind the wheel of her 2008 Ford Edge that night.

"How the police came to any other conclusion is truly beyond me," Delan said. "They just picked the wrong case to build the sort of groundswell support for changing the law."

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.

Conversely, Georgia law generally allows for a maximum punishment of one year in confinement for misdemeanor convictions.

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

Delan said his client had a green light at the intersection and simply didn't see the victim, who was wearing dark clothing, he said.

"Sometimes tragic accidents are just that -- accidents," he said. "There was no one to blame here."