Brittany Stephens is a 20-year-old mom from Louisiana whose little girl is dead.
In October, Stephens was riding with three friends and her 1-year-old daughter, Seyaira, when the SUV they were in was hit by an off-duty police officer who was reportedly driving 94 mph.
The crash didn’t happen on a high-speed road. I checked out the location of the accident on Google Maps, and it’s an intersection in a busy commercial area of Baton Rouge. The road where the cop, Christopher Manuel, was driving has a speed limit of 50 mph, so when he slammed into the SUV as it made a left turn, he was reportedly approaching the intersection at nearly double the legal speed.
Everyone in the SUV was rushed to the hospital, and Seyaira did not survive her injuries. Manuel was charged with speeding and negligent homicide.
Now here’s where this story adds incredible frustration on top of incredible tragedy: For failing to properly adjust the strap length on Seyaira’s car seat to match her height, Brittany Stephens has been hit with the same charge as Manuel. This young mother is also facing negligent homicide charges, and she had to post thousands of dollars in bail to stay out of jail.
Anyone who has ever attempted to wrestle a wiggly baby or toddler into a car seat knows it is very difficult to get right. The internet is rife with advice on how to successfully get your kid into the car. Straps get tangled. Buckles get stuck. “In my work with parents of toddlers,” writes one parenting blogger, “I would rank car seats as one of the most complicated and tricky issues. … Our children are twisting and arching their backs and screaming and kicking and pummeling our heads with their fists as we hold them down and buckle them in.”
I don’t know whether Stephens struggled to get Seyaira buckled the day of the crash, but it’s not hard to imagine how a perfectly good mom might not tighten the straps correctly. And in what world does that innocent error warrant the same charge as the one faced by a police officer — someone with more driving and safety training than the average person — accused of going 94 in a 50 zone and killing a little girl?
This story is especially maddening because while in one sense it is clear cut, in another it is extremely fuzzy. Unlike some cases of the criminal justice system gone wrong, this isn’t about over-criminalization: Negligent homicide is an appropriate charge in the right circumstances. The problem is not the existence of the charge but its use.
The problem here is the power of the prosecutor, an office which desperately needs accountability and reform.
Prosecutors have enormous official discretion. “They can choose how harshly to go after someone, how lenient to go after someone,” explains John Pfaff, a Fordham University professor of criminal law. “They have tremendous power in that respect.”
Pfaff’s research has found that prosecutors choosing to prosecute misdemeanor offenses as felonies is a major contributing factor to the United States’ record-setting imprisonment rate. Prosecutors “remain the only actor [in the justice system] who is subject to almost no regulation at all,” he says. “In states without sentencing guidelines, there are no rules about what sort of sentences they can impose. They can choose who gets charged, and who doesn’t, with no review. They can choose what charges to file.”
And the way the job works now, prosecutors “don’t feel like they’re doing their jobs unless they’re winning convictions and putting people in jail,” explains journalist Radley Balko over at Reason. He continues:
Think about it: When was the last time you read a big story about your local district attorney declining to bring charges? It happens, of course. But it isn’t covered. Even rarer, when was the last time a prosecutor was praised for such restraint? (The one exception might be police-involved shootings.) The truth is that prosecutors are praised, reelected and promoted based on the cases they win, and on the number of people they put away.
Which means prosecutors have an incentive to see an accident as a case of criminal negligence, to find willful intent where none may exist, and to find creative new ways to criminalize what’s really no more than bad — though not necessarily criminal — behavior.
Worse yet, says Ken White, a former federal prosecutor, the job trains prosecutors to see constitutional “rights as a challenge, as something to be overcome to win a conviction.”
Brittany Stephens is a 20-year-old mom from Louisiana whose little girl is dead, and now she’s been hit with an incredibly unfair charge — the apparent result of an out-of-control prosecutor’s office. Her nightmare ordeal shows all too well why prosecutor’s offices must be a target of criminal justice reform.