SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) — A Rohnert Park man was sentenced Friday morning in Sonoma County Superior Court to a year in the county jail and three years probation for in a rear-end, distracted driving crash that killed two women in Santa Rosa in March.
Nicholas Tognozzi, 30, pleaded no contest on Aug. 20 in exchange for the sentence indicated by Judge Rene Chouteau.
His trial was scheduled to start Aug. 29, and he faced 12 years and four months if convicted of the charges and enhancements. He began serving his term after he pleaded no contest.
Inmates typically serve six months of a one-year county jail sentence, and Tognozzi has two months credit for the time he spent in jail after the crash, meaning he could be released in December.
After 18 months of successful probation, the two felony gross vehicular manslaughter charges will be reduced to misdemeanors, under the plea agreement.
Deputy District Attorney Dustin Hughson said the prosecution had not made any plea offers to Tognozzi and did not have any input on the indicated sentence that was reached between the defense and the judge during discussions in the chambers before the plea agreement.
Hughson, however, did object last month when Judge Chouteau removed from the complaint the great bodily injury enhancement regarding Donald Hufford’s injuries. Hughson said the enhancement would have added five years to Tognozzi’s sentence.
Tognozzi glanced down at his cellphone to check a text message seconds before his 2005 GMC Sierra collided with the rear of a 2001 Toyota Camry on eastbound state Highway 12 in Santa Rosa on March 15.
The 5:20 p.m. crash on March 15 killed Susan Hufford, 53, and her mother-in-law Sharon Hufford, 74, both of Santa Rosa. The women were sitting in the back seat of the Camry that had slowed for traffic near Farmers Lane.
Jay Hufford, 54, Susan’s husband, and Donald Hufford, 74, Sharon’s husband, were riding in the front seat. Donald Hufford suffered major injuries in the crash.
A California Highway Patrol officer testified at Tognozzi’s June 26 preliminary hearing that Tognozzi said he was driving to a friend’s house in Bennett Valley and looked down at his cellphone on the console of his vehicle for 3-5 seconds because he was expecting a text from his friend.
Tognozzi said when he looked up he saw the stopped traffic but did not have time to brake. The GMC collided with the Toyota at about 50 mph.
Tognozzi wept when he apologized to members of the Hufford family who were in court for the sentencing. Defense attorney Matthew Freeman said Tognozzi was ordered to perform 300 hours of community service, and that his client is involved in the nationwide End Distracted Driving program.
During the court proceedings, Freeman maintained the case was a distracted driving, not a felony vehicular manslaughter offense. Freeman said there was no speeding, texting, alcohol or drugs involved.
“It’s a wake up call to everyone,” Freeman said about the momentary cellphone distraction after Tognozzi pleaded no contest last month.
Chouteau ruled after the preliminary hearing that Tognozzi was driving too fast for the traffic conditions ahead, and that he looked down at his cellphone before the collision.
“In the court’s opinion, that’s gross negligence,” Chouteau said.
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