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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Tale of two drivers

Two bad drivers, two radically different punishments
By Will Collette

Lyle Topa gets the driving "death sentence"
 Last week, two irresponsible, dangerous drivers faced a judge to receive their sentence in high-profile traffic cases after copping to charges.

One was 17-year-old Lyle Topa, Chariho student and driver of the car in the horrific crash in Carolina village that left him and fellow students terribly injured. The other was 59-year-old state Representative Bob Watson (R-E. Greenwich), who was busted for the second time in the past year with drugs in the front seat.

State Rep. and notorious druggie
Bob Watson gets a $200 fine
Watson was busted in South Kingstown. The arresting officer failed to conduct a field sobriety test, so Watson was not charged with DUI, even though the police report said he appeared “very drunk.” The officer was disciplined for that failure.

Topa had the book thrown at him by Traffic Judge William Guglietta. Guglietta revoked Topa’s driving license privileges for life. Guglietta described the sentence as “the death penalty” for a driver. He says he imposed the sentence because he was sick and tired of seeing Rhode Island’s roads "littered with broken dreams and broken futures." 

Rep. Bob Watson pleaded no contest to marijuana possession. He was fined $200, which he must donate to a victims’ assistance fund, and his court record has been “filed” for one year. If he does not re-offend, the record can be destroyed after one year. 

In my opinion, the gross disparity in the treatment of Topa and Watson is a disgrace. Both Topa and Watson committed gross violations, deserving of serious punishment. I would love to see their sentences added together, then divided by two and imposed equally on both offenders.

One significant problem with Topa’s sentence is that a lifetime ban on driving means that he will not be able to continue to live in Charlestown and earn a living to support himself. We have no public transportation. When he eventually enters the work force, how will the kid, soon to be a young man, ever be able to be a productive member of society?

This is not a defense of Topa. He was driving the car that crashed after having already had his license suspended twice. He has been irresponsible and stupid. But making it impossible for this young man to earn a living doesn’t seem like a good way to turn him into a good citizen.

Topa served a week in the Rhode Island youth correctional facility.

Watson, by sharp contrast, spent a few weeks at an unnamed Florida rehab facility. His arraignment after his Jan. 21 arrest was delayed until he completed his treatment and returned to the state. His disappearance from Rhode Island to go into rehab sparked controversy.

The court was not pleased that Watson left the jurisdiction without permission. Timothy Williamson, Watson’s attorney, told District Court Judge Mary McCaffrey he didn't know where his client was, only that he was out of state and in treatment for substance abuse. The judge was not amused, but applied no penalty.

But, hey, Bob Watson is a state legislator, not a 17-year-old screw-up. Apparently, being a 59-year-old screw-up with friends in high places comes with privileges.

Judge Guglietta has been a vocal advocate for cracking down on chronic traffic offenders, especially after Charlestown’s Colin Foote was killed at the intersection of Route One and West Beach Road by a multiple offender. Guglietta  has worked with Rep. Donna Walsh on her continuing effort to improve state law to close loopholes bad drivers use to stay on the road.

But the Lyle Topa sentence seems to me to swing the pendulum too far in the other direction. 


  1. This is very sad.

    Look at it on the bright side if somebody had died in the Richmond crash manslaughter would be a term in play.

    Collette you are way off on this one...the teenager crashed, Watson did not. Does this mean Watson is not pond scum? No, it means the "fact pattern" was different. You can't compare an apple to an orange, I think you need to take your role as a "gate keeper" in the local news circuit a little more seriously. These are peoples lives at stake it's not just another episode of Law and Order on TNT...Try going deeper for all of our sakes.......

    Finally, Topa is lucky to be alive, Watson will probably wish to have died once his propensity for drug abuse takes back over his soul...

    My advice and learn

  2. Beth Richardson comments
    Lyle Topa's license was permanently suspended in the state of RI. He can drive in another state. It would appear that he will have to move to another state or live in a city that has public transportation. Oh well.

    1. Really.... I think you are right on Will.. I feel the same exact way. He is 17 years old we all have made mistakes.. He will live with the crash the rest of his life.. Take his license until he is 21 .Have him install a breathelizer instrument in his car but to force a citizen out of his state, Im sorry.. I am so mad about this. I have a son as well, I don't want my children forced to move away from me to live . And really think about it. If he goes to Mystic or Stonington and rents a house he can get a license and then he is what just across the line.. He can STILL DRIVE IN RI.. so for a judge ,I don't think he is very smart..He only tried to make himself look good ..So now if we look at this way he got off pretty good... START MAKING EXAMPLES OF ADULTS and maybe our children will learn from the mistakes WE as the adults have been charged with..Instead of charging some kid that did something stupid because #1 WHO BUYS THERE 17 YEAR OLD a 5.0 mustang for their first car and # 2 who kicks kids out of a party at 2am and puts them all in danger.. Why didnt Mrs Serra call all the parents to pick them up.. I would have thought a lot moreof her but instead she knows they were drinking at her home ,kicked them out ..goes to the scene of the accident and screams at the kids ,does not render aid and gets back in her car and goes home. This judge is wrong.. and all the law makers like to have a nip or two as well... hope they are paying attention here!!!!

  3. Lyle Topa can get a job and be a productive member of society. When your privilege to drive in one state is revoked, that information can be used (and usually is) to deny you the right to drive in other states as well.

    So he will have to walk. And live near the bus line. And ask for rides. Mr. Topa will need to make thoughtful choices and work a little harder to get a job, find a place to live, and get around.
    Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps that hurdle and that daily reminder is exactly what he needs. This should not be easy to get past for him.

    And I can tell you this--my two teenage boys PAYED ATTENTION to this sentence.

    Hats off to Judge Guglietta.

    1. I am glad your two sons paid attention to this...Lets hope one of your children don't do something stupid like this.. We NEVER know what our children might do no matter how well they are raised... Its funny how RI laws are.. Now lets let Mr Woodmansee out of prison for killing a child ,a child... He will have a RI drivers license as well so he may drive around our neighborhood and pick up children {lets pray that doesn't happen] but he killed a child and he was up for early release for good behavior...Now, I'm not saying Lyle Topa should not be punished but I think this decision is being based upon the accident that involed Carlton Foote .. Look at what his dad did after his son was killed.. drinking,stupid,but it happens..... He chased a young girl down the road scared her to death and she ran into the police station with him following her and he had been drinking.. I am just saying give this kid some community service in the schools with young adults take his license for awhile from him with conditions... A life time is a long time ..people change and people grow up .. Lets help him make the right decisions now ,he is still growing and learning.. The judge said it was a death sentence because it is.. If he can never drive ,Im sure he will attempt to at some point right or wrong because he is so young ...... I just think the judge could have got his point across in a better way... I hope the family fights this and I hope Lyle gets a chance to drive again and do some good in his life and help other kids based on what he did...EVERYONE DESERVES A SECOND CHANCE,maybe not a 3rd but always a second chance...

  4. This is ridiculous. Will RIers ever demand that our elected and appointed public officials be held to a higher standard? There really should be stringent mandatory sentencing guidelines for officials who break the laws that they should, frankly, have a better grasp of than the average citizen. The message sent in the disparity in how these offenders were treated by the court is, "You will get preferential treatment under the law if you work for the state or municipal government in some regard." The message that should be sent is, "You will be held under more rigorous scrutiny, and our laws applied without leniency if you are a public official that scoffs at them." Sad that Watson hasn't had the good sense to give up his seat in the House. Even sadder that the other members haven't summarily drummed him out onto his pickled backside.

  5. I definitely agree that Watson should have received a greater punishment than he did, and I'm tired of public officials skating. On the other hand, I am equally or more tired of those who have had driving violations also skating. How many accidents have been caused by people with numerous driving violations? Too many! I do think that Tupa's license should have been revoked through at least age 21, with the issue being revisited at that time. I hope that Connecticut is harsher on Watson than Rhode Island is apparently able to be.


  6. So the kid moves 5 miles into Connecticut and gets a license. I believe that Ms. Serra should get the same sentence as Topa as it relates to the license... And then the civil suits on top of that.

    1. absolutely.. She left those kids at the scene at that horrible crash . She wasn't worried at all if they were ok. She worried only about herself getting into trouble and left the scene of the accident . BUT JUST LIKE A CAMERA ON AT 2 AM.. a neighbor and the KIDS in the other car they stopped to help the boys in the accident. They all see her at the scene and she yells at the kids, the ones that are in the crash and leaves.. Oh ,I hope the civil suits follow her for sure! .. Now did anyone check this ADULT driver,was she drinking!!.. being an adult you just don't do that..But lets punish the kids, boy do we know how to set an example for our kids!

  7. No one once in all the media ever bothered to mention that Lyle Topa was/is a consistent honor roll student every quarter. This sentence is excessive for a young teenager in his senior year of high school and looking towards college but without a license will find it impossible without public transportation, I am sure the family cannot now with the legal fees afford a dorm. If not college how will he get a job here as well. Then what? Idle hands... This judge is ruining his chance at a successful life. Haven't we all made mistakes in our youthful lack of insight. Don't you think he must be remorseful for what he's done, and has to live with what happened to his friends and his own injuries as well?

    1. This is my last post on this but I would like to mention that all the kids involved are good kids.. No records, not in trouble with the police .. very involved in football.. It was an accident a bad judgement call that night for all involved ... Don't ruin this kids future by taking his freedom away... These kids were his friends.. and accidents like this happen every graduating year with the schools.. Maybe the schools need to be more active with this problem as well.. I think our youth here in Charlestown, Richmond, Westerly,Hopkington and the other surrounding areas are really good kids.. Lets keep them that way and talk to them not punish so harshly this one teen for the rest of RI..

  8. First off, the sentence was made to set an example. It's working look at all the posts here, the Sun and the Pro Jo. many kids are thinking "Holy &%^#" ! Yes he could move out of state, but cannot drive in RI even with an out of state license. His privilege to operate in RI is revoked.

    All these people are going on about the poor kid, bad choice and all. What if that was you child in the car with him that night? I have to wonder if you would be sating those things. One line in The Sun, has some intelligent person saying "it's not like someone got killed!" Based on the statement it would be OK if a student brought a gun to school as long as no one got killed? Please, young adults at that age make bad decisions, it the way their minds work. When you add alcohol, it just makes it that much worse. The message seems pretty clear, parents need to speak with their kids, it's not up to teachers, the cops or the courts to raise your kids

    1. I think it also needs to be said that neuroscience research has shown that the brain is not fully developed until about age 25. So teenagers are really not fully capable of making sophisticated judgements about things that have long-term consequences. Which, incidentally, is an argument that's being used to oppose death sentences on teenagers in states that allow it.

    2. your right... they are not there to raise them BUT they are there to teach them ... and help them learn and become productive adults..

  9. I wrote the article mainly to contrast the treatment of 59-year old Rep. Bob Watson and 17-year old Lyle Topa. There is no excuse or justification for the behavior of either Watson or Topa. Both deserve to be punished, but punished fairly.

    As a 59-year old, Watson should know better than to drive while stoned. In his CT and RI busts, he was not only stoned, but also drinking.

    Lyle Topa is a 17 year old. I am now 62, but I still remember (dimly) what it was like to be a 17 year old.

    The Attorney General’s office recommended his license be revoked until he turned 21, whereupon his status could be reviewed. That seemed like a sensible way to handle a 17 year old. Under the AG’s recommendation, the kid would have a chance to rebuild his life and perhaps demonstrate, when he turns 21, that he has been scared straight.

    Watson, too, has his chance at redemption. Perhaps Connecticut will deal with him more appropriately than Rhode Island did and give him some incentive to get straight. And I mean more than playing the "gone to a rehab spa" card.

  10. There was a better way that the judge could have handled service to all high schools in RI to talk about his mistakes,license revokedto age 21. Other high school students could have benefited from a school assembly with Topa as a guest speaker. Complete with picturs of the wrecked car. People who are convicted of far more serious crimes have an "end" to thier punishment...and then they can become members of society again. When does this 17 yr old get the chance to prove he was young and stupid but he has learned his lesson? the state of RI apparently. Judge missed an opportunity to send a more powerful message to a broader audience of high school drivers...


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