Dozens charged, none imprisoned for street racing in law’s first 10 years

Target 12 tours the so-called "bone yard" at state police headquarters.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The majority of people who have been charged under a 10-year-old street-racing law have seen their charges dismissed or amended as part of plea deal, according to court data reviewed by Target 12.

In all, 54 people have been charged with 64 counts of illegal street racing under a measure known as the Justin Nunes law. Of those, 16 people have pleaded no contest, 31 of the charges were dismissed or amended in a plea deal and seven cases could not be found. A court spokesperson said that is likely because the charges had been expunged by a judge.

Target 12’s review also found not one of the 54 people charged served any prison time under the street-racing law; the 16 who pleaded no contest all had their licenses suspended for a time and were ordered to take part in community service. Of the 31 cases where the street-racing charge was dropped, in 19 of those it was as part of a plea deal where the defendants accepted an amended charge.

Even then, only one of those 19 was given any prison time – again not for street racing, but rather for a more serious charge as part of a larger case. That one defendant was sentenced to three years at the state prison for leaving the scene death resulting, and another was given six months of home confinement for reckless driving.

The Justin Nunes law – named after a 17-year-old who died as a passenger in a car that was taking part in an illegal street race – was designed to give prosecutors another tool to charge people who engage in racing. The first time someone is charged with street racing it is considered a misdemeanor, but can still come with up to one year in prison. The potential punishment gets progressively more severe if the defendant has been charged a second or third time, or if the defendant has a passenger in the car.

Because most charges begin as a misdemeanor they are prosecuted at the city or town level, rather than by the attorney general’s office. A case only reaches state prosecutors when it is elevated to a felony – meaning the defendant has been charged multiple times or had a passenger in the car – or if the case results in other felony charges such as reckless driving.

Only eight street racing cases ever made it to the Rhode Island attorney general’s office for prosecution. Amy Kempe, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, said in five of those cases, the charge for street racing was dismissed.

“In each of those five instances, however, the charge was dismissed in exchange for the defendant pleading to a more serious offense (including reckless driving resulting in injury and reckless driving resulting in death), or the charge was amended to a different motor vehicle violation, such as reckless driving, which carries similar or the same penalties,” Kempe said in an email. “None of the cases prosecuted by the Office of Attorney General had all charges dismissed outright.”

‘That peddle is a trigger’

After the 2003 crash that claimed her son’s life, Lori Nunes fought to get a law on the books to make street racing a criminal offense. Two people were charged in that incident, which began as a race in Swansea and ended when one of the cars lost control and crashed into a tree in Bristol. Along with Nunes, another passenger, 19-year-old Steven Botelho, also died in the wreck.

The case against one of the drivers ended in a mistrial the first time in court. The defendant, Michael Cabral, was eventually convicted of reckless driving and sentenced to two years in prison. (The other driver, Michael Lombardi, was given 12 years.)

Lori Nunes – who now lives in North Carolina – said if there had been an anti-street-racing law in place at the time of the crash, the sentences would have been more severe and the first court case would not have ended in a mistrial.

“It’s a thought-about act; these are not accidents,” Nunes said. “The wrecks are a result of negligent behavior – you know you are driving a deadly weapon.”

“Basically a car is a gun,” she added. “That peddle is a trigger.”

Nunes said she is heartened that the data gathered by Target 12 shows police are out “doing their jobs” and charging people with violating the law that carries her son’s name. But she would like to see more cases result in prison time.

“Pleading out? I can’t plead with God to get him back,” Nunes said. “We need to get tougher and we need to stop being so lenient in that courtroom.”

Court records show Cabral was arrested again for street racing in 2009 and was charged under the Justin Nunes law, as well as with one count of reckless driving. Ultimately a grand jury dropped the street racing charge and Cabral was indicted for reckless driving, pleading no contest and receiving six months of home confinement.

“The way the law is written it should be a deterrent and I know that law enforcement is going ahead and charging [people] with this law,” Nunes said. “But what’s happening in the courtroom is the issue.”

Online Evidence

Behind the state police barracks in Scituate is a fenced-off parking lot that investigators refer to as the “bone yard.” Sprinkled among cruisers and cars impounded in drug cases are dozens of mangled wrecks from crashes under active investigation by the state police.

One car, a blue Subaru torn apart beyond recognition, still sits in the lot as evidence, even though the street-racing crash – which resulted in a death – happened three years ago. Sgt. Jeffrey L’Heureux, who runs the State Police Collision Unit, said that’s because the driver is still so badly injured he can’t be served him with an arrest warrant.

Sgt. Jeffrey L’Heureux being interviewed at evidence lot near state police headquarters.

“It was a group of kids that decided to go up on the highway and go fast and this was what they call a follow car,” L’Heureux said. “They were videotaping the first two cars to see, and declare who was the winner of that race.”

L’Heureux – whose first street-racing case was the one that killed Nunes in 2003 – said investigators haven’t seen an increase in the number of such cases, but they are seeing more video recordings and pictures being taken and posted online by people involved.

And investigators are using those as evidence.

“It is just becoming more visible for everyone else,” L’Heureux said.

“The kids – like a badge of honor – ‘You want to see how fast I’m going? Here’s a picture,” he said. “We’ve done some Facebook shots of some crashes where you can see their speedometers.”

Video from the crash involving the blue Subaru resulted in seven arrests; four were charged under the Justin Nunes law. All four defendants pleaded no contest and lost their license for less than a year – a first offense gives a range of 90 days to six months – and ordered to do community service, as required by law.

Despite the lack of jail time, L’Heureux said for law enforcement, the street-racing statute is making a difference.

“The way the statute is written you do not need a starting line, a finish line and someone waving a flag,” L’Heureux said. “It’s a course of conduct of driving erratically at a high rate of speed with another vehicle through traffic. That’s all it takes to be classified as street racing.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook