By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Cloverdale teenager who killed an elderly pedestrian in a hit-and-run crash was sentenced Wednesday to the equivalent of probation and temporary electronic home confinement after an emotional hearing in which the victim’s family demanded jail.
Mitch Carlson, 17, sobbed during his first public apology to the family of Miguel Sanchez, 83, the Cloverdale man he hit with his pickup as Sanchez crossed a street on Dec. 27. Carlson was arrested the same day after fleeing to his nearby high school for basketball practice.
“I know I should have stayed at the scene,” the sniffling Carlson told Sanchez’s relatives gathered for the sentencing in juvenile court. “I made a terrible mistake.”
Earlier in the hearing, Sanchez’s adult grandson, Jon-Michael Sanchez, lashed out at Carlson, calling him a coward and urging Judge Raima Ballinger to lock him away so the family never has to “run into him in the grocery store, see him driving on a local street or read about his accomplishments” in the newspaper.
“We are not seeking an eye for an eye,” Sanchez said. “We are seeking punishment. We believe strongly there is one place he needs to go — behind bars to serve time.”
The dramatic appeals came in a juvenile court hearing opened to the public after an additional misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter was added against Carlson. He also faced a felony hit-and-run charge, amended to include “causing death.”
Ballinger said those charges and factors that include Carlson’s lack of a criminal record prevented her from sentencing him to juvenile hall or the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
Instead, Carlson was given a maximum three years’ probation, during which he would perform community service or participate in a restorative justice-type program, working to repay the family for their losses, Ballinger said.
“The goals of what we do here are different,” Ballinger said before handing down the sentence. “This is a rehabilitation court because we’re dealing with young people. We’re dealing with minors.”
Carlson’s restorative justice assignment could include taking up the victim’s routine of helping his neighbors by picking up their newspapers, tending gardens and mowing lawns, Ballinger said.
“He could literally walk in the footsteps of Mr. Sanchez,” Ballinger said.
She asked both sides to return to court April 13 with a detailed plan. She imposed other conditions on the teen, including a ban on driving and a 9 p.m. curfew, restrictions to last for the duration of probation. He’ll also have to pay still undetermined financial restitution to the victim’s family to cover expenses related to Sanchez’s care and ultimate death.
If Carlson completes probation successfully, his record will be wiped clean of the charges, she said, typical in juvenile cases resolved through the restorative justice program.
Carlson admitted the charges in court, crimes that special prosecutor Murat Ozgur said could have brought Carlson up to four years in state prison and a year in county jail if he had been 18 at the time of the collision. He turns 18 in September.
The prosecutor expressed frustration at being unable to answer key questions, such as whether Carlson was using a cell phone at the time of the crash. Carlson’s phone was seized from the pickup and analyzed by a high-tech task force but it failed to turn up evidence, in part because of the amount of time that had passed, Ozgur said.
Carlson denied using it, he said.
“We just didn’t have enough information to say,” Ozgur said outside court.
The Marin County deputy district attorney, who was appointed to the case after allegations of mishandling surfaced against Sonoma County prosecutors, concluded the system failed the Sanchez family, in part because they were not notified about early court hearings.
But he made no allegations of wrongdoing against anyone involved in the case.
“I do not think you will necessarily get any closure from this,” he told the family in open court.
The case became a lightning rod for criticism, in part because of its initial speedy resolution.
Two days after the collision, as Sanchez lay dying from his injuries in a hospital bed, Sonoma County prosecutors charged Carlson with a single count of hit-and-run causing great bodily injury and apparently halted the police investigation.
The accident happened on a quiet Monday morning as Carlson, a senior at Cloverdale High School and a forward on the varsity basketball team, was driving north on North Main Street at about 9:40 a.m., apparently headed to a 10 a.m. practice scheduled at the high school, according to Cloverdale police.
Sanchez was walking in an unmarked crossing on North Main Street, heading home after gardening in a friend’s yard, when he was struck by the pickup as it traveled as fast as 25 mph, the posted speed limit. The impact threw Sanchez onto the pickup’s hood, and he then landed on the pavement about 20 feet away from where officers believe he was initially hit, police said.
Ozgur, citing the police report, said in court that a witness described Carlson stopping, opening his door briefly and then driving away.
Carlson’s attorney, Joe Passalacqua, said he did not know why the teenager left the scene and went to the school, but cited police reports saying he was scared.
“He runs off to a place of comfort and safety for him,” Passalacqua told the judge. “Is that the right thing to do? I can’t judge him on that.”
Carlson admitted the charge on Dec. 29 and returned home with an ankle monitoring device. He returned a day later to court, pleaded to the charge and a sentencing date was set. The entire matter was completed before Sanchez succumbed to his injuries a day later.
Meanwhile, the victim’s family had no contact from prosecutors until receiving a letter postmarked Jan. 3 informing them the matter had been resolved. They said no one called the hospital to check on Sanchez’s condition.
Under Marsy’s Law, created by a 2008 state voter initiative, crime victims have a legal right to be notified of and attend all public criminal proceedings. Victims’ families also have the right to participate in other aspects of the criminal process, such as conferring with prosecutors on charges filed.
Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who took office a week after the crash, admitted a miscommunication. She called for the independent prosecutor overseen by the state Attorney General and vowed to investigate the handling of the case at its conclusion.
However, Ravitch has not identified the prosecutor who handled the case in the days after the crash nor explained the delay in notifying the family.
Former District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua, who is the brother of the Carlson family attorney and who was in his last week as district attorney during the time of the juvenile court proceedings, has said he had no involvement in the case.
Outside of court after the sentence was handed down, the lawyer for the Sanchez family, Melinda Guzman, called for independent reviews by the attorney general, grand jury and federal civil rights officials. She said Sanchez may have been mistreated because of his ethnic background.
Also, she said the family plans to sue for compensatory and punitive damages in civil court.
“Nobody leaves very happy today,” Guzman said. “There are too many unanswered questions.”