A Baton Rouge lawmaker and legal experts weighed in Wednesday expressing "serious concern" about the recent arrest of a mother accused of failing to secure her baby daughter's car seat before an off-duty police officer crashed into their vehicle at 94 mph and fatally injured the child.
State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle said she "questioned why (the mother) would have been arrested" and "was in shock to see that they would do this."
"She already lost a child," said Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge. "I just think that unless I'm missing something, I'm seriously concerned about it."
Brittany Stephens, 20, was arrested Tuesday on negligent homicide after police found that in an Oct. 12 wreck her daughter's car seat was not secured and the straps were not adjusted correctly for the child's height, according to her arrest report. Police said the "lack of securing the seat to the vehicle and the loose straps are a contributing factor in the death" of the child and "show gross negligence" on the mother's part.
Just weeks after a Baton Rouge police officer was arrested on negligent homicide and accused of causing a crash that injured several people an…
The arrest came two weeks after Baton Rouge police officer Christopher Manuel, 28, was arrested on a count of negligent homicide — the same count as Stephens — and speeding.
An investigation into the crash found Manuel's Corvette was traveling 94 mph when he struck the SUV carrying Stephens, three other adults and four children, including Stephens' one year old, Seyaira. Stephens was not the driver but told the officers she was responsible for securing the car seat. Police have said there were more people than seats in the vehicle.
Seyaira was transported to the hospital after the crash and later died of her injuries.
Stephens was booked into Parish Prison on Tuesday but had been released on $3,600 bail by Wednesday morning, according to online prison records. She could not be reached for comment.
A Baton Rouge police officer was arrested Friday on a count of negligent homicide, accused of going 94 mph in a Corvette when he caused an off…
Marcelle said the fact that Stephens wasn't driving should be a factor. "It's a bit far reaching to me," she said.
LSU criminal law professor Ken Levy also said that without knowing all the details of the case, the arrest "seems to me unnecessary if not mean spirited to go after the mother for the death of her child" despite the fact that Stephens played no role in the crash itself. He described the arrest as "overreaching."
"It's very sad that a child died, but that doesn't mean that you go and punish as many people as possible for child's death," he said. "The principal culprit here is the officer. … The mother is being blamed for this tragedy and that just doesn't seem fair."
Levy said the law would require prosecutors to prove "gross negligence" on Stephens' part and also prove that her daughter's death was the result of the car seat being improperly restrained.
Mike Mitchell, the chief public defender for East Baton Rouge Parish, said he also found the arrest "certainly unusual" and problematic. Mitchell said his office has not been appointed to represent Stephens at this point, though that could change as the case moves forward.
Former First Assistant District Attorney Prem Burns said she found the arrest "hyper-technical" and legally questionable.
"When you compare somebody traveling 90 miles an hour striking that vehicle, who's willing to say that baby could have survived anything?" Burns said.
She said with a difficult case — like vehicular deaths where someone might be culpable — the best practice would be for law enforcement agents to bring the evidence to the district attorney's office before rushing to make an arrest. If prosecutors decide to take the case to a grand jury and an indictment is brought, then an arrest can be made at that point.
Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. Don Coppola Jr. said Wednesday that detectives who investigated the crash booked "the appropriate parties who contributed to the death of a 1-year-old child." Investigators "believe … they have probable cause to support the charges" against Stephens.
Coppola said Officer Manuel has been on paid administrative leave since the crash pending the conclusion of a criminal investigation and subsequent internal affairs investigation into his conduct.
He said a pre-termination hearing has been scheduled for Manuel in coming weeks, at which point investigators will present their findings to the chief and other command staff. The chief will decide then whether to terminate Manuel from his position as an officer or impose some other disciplinary measures. Manuel will remain on paid administrative leave until that decision is reached.
Coppola declined to provide additional information about the findings of investigations into the crash. He also said Stephens was not arrested until months after the accident due to an "extensive ongoing investigation."
East Baton Rouge coroner Dr. Beau Clark said Seyaira died of blunt force trauma to the neck with fracture of the spine and contusion of the spinal cord. He declined to comment specifically about this case but said that in general failure to secure a car seat could certainly exacerbate a child's injuries resulting from a crash.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said proving criminal negligence in Louisiana is also "extremely difficult." It means proving "beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual's conduct is more than a mere deviation from the standard of ordinary care; it must be a gross deviation below the standard of care expected to be maintained by a reasonably careful person under like circumstances," he said. Then the state must also prove that deviation caused the death in question.
Moore said criminal negligence equates to "almost an intentional type of act."
Moore said after Stephens was arrested that his office has not yet received the reports they need to determine whether either she or Manuel will face charges. He said prosecutors "will review all reports, charges and arrests and make the appropriate decisions based upon facts and law." He said he hopes to announce those decisions soon.