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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.