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Fatal DWI plea deal rejected as too light

A Charlotte man charged with a fatal drunken-driving crash will spend at least a year in prison after a judge blocked a plea agreement that carried a shorter sentence.

Bairon Sandoval, 24, pleaded guilty Thursday to involuntary manslaughter and driving while impaired in connection with a February crash in which one of his passengers died.

Sandoval’s Nissan pickup spun out of control near Tyvola and Old Pineville roads. Prosecutors say he had been drinking that night at a bar on Eastway Drive. He didn’t have a license, and he had been charged with driving without one twice before.

The night had been an icy one. But Assistant District Attorney Gabrielle Macon told the court that hundreds of cars had passed through the same intersection near South Boulevard without problem.

Sandoval’s truck, however, crossed into the median and slammed into a tree. Tatiana Rivera, 20, died. Another passenger was seriously injured. Sandoval was charged with a list of crimes, including felony death by vehicle and driving while impaired.

Thursday, he appeared in Mecklenburg Superior Court for what is normally a formality: a judge signing off on an agreement between defense attorney and prosecutor that the accused will plead guilty to a lesser charge and sentence. In return, both sides avoid the cost and time of a trial.

In this case, Sandoval would say he was guilty of voluntary manslaughter and DWI and would serve 10 to 21 months behind bars.

All Superior Court Judge Richard Boner had to do was sign. But he refused.

After hearing the evidence and reading the terms of the agreement between Macon and defense attorney Stephanie Jackson, Boner said Sandoval’s punishment was too light.

Somebody had died and another person had been seriously injured, the judge said to Macon. Sandoval should not have been driving in the first place, Boner added, and tests had shown him to be legally drunk at the time.

Why only 10 to 21 months? the judge asked. “I personally have a problem with that.”

Macon replied that if the case went to trial, prosecutors would have to prove that the crash would not have happened if Sandoval had not been drinking. Given the icy conditions present that night, that task might have proved difficult.

Boner was not convinced. Some other judge might approve the plea agreement, he said, “but I’m not.”

The county’s senior Superior Court judge has spoken up before about drinking and driving. In July, as he was about to sentence a driver under a plea settlement to a fatal DWI case, Boner lambasted the state’s drunken-driving laws. He said the legislature owes North Carolinians tougher regulations that make it illegal to drive after any alcohol is consumed.

Thursday after court, Boner stuck to that argument. The .08 blood-alcohol standard that the state uses to legally define drunkenness sets up “a guessing game” on whether a driver was too impaired to operate a vehicle, he told the Observer.

“We already know that any alcohol has an adverse impact on a person’s physical and mental faculties,” he said.

Sentences like the one proposed for Sandoval “send the wrong message. ... I wouldn’t give out one like that under any circumstances.”

Later in the day, and as earlier planned, Sandoval pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and DWI. But he did it before Superior Judge Yvonne Mims Evans.

The plea agreement Evans signed differed in only one way from what Boner rejected: Sandoval’s sentence had grown by two months, to between one and two years. He would also serve seven days for the DWI charge, but that sentence will become part of his prison term.

In a prepared statement following Sandoval’s guilty plea, the district attorney’s office said prosecutors had discussed the original agreement with Tatiana Rivera’s relatives before they took it into court. The family indicated that they had already forgiven Sandoval and were satisfied with his punishment, prosecutors said.

Because state law allows probation in involuntary manslaughter cases, the district attorney’s office said it was pleased Sandoval “will serve an active prison sentence.”

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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