Oregon court tosses teen driver’s conviction

Written by Don Iler, Pilot staff writer January 31, 2014 08:38 pm

A 17-year-old Brookings student whose SUV veered into oncoming traffic after she fell asleep at the wheel and killed a motorcyclist in 2010, had her 2011 conviction overturned Wednesday by the Oregon Court of Appeals

Sierra Nicole Rigel, who graduated Brookings-Harbor High School in 2011, had been found guilty in juvenile court in 2011  of criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault. She was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and had her license revoked for the rest of her life. 

However, the appeals court on Wednesday reversed this decision, finding “the youth did not act recklessly.” 

The Pilot’s attempts to reach Rigel or her family for comment were unsuccessful Friday.

In 2010, Danny Michael Nudo, 45, of Gresham,  was riding his motorcycle north on Highway 101 between Brookings and Gold Beach when Rigel’s Ford Excursion veered over the center line and struck Nudo’s motorcycle. Nudo was pronounced dead at the scene. 

Rigel, honor student with a 4.0 GPA, was returning from dropping a friend off in Gold Beach on Sept. 15, 2010 when the accident occurred. She admitted in court to feeling drowsy while driving. 

The appeals court’s decision to reverse her conviction could have much wider reach — affecting the ability of prosecutors across the state to clamp down on drowsy drivers who maim or kill.

The court agreed with a defense expert who had said drivers can feel fine, then suddenly realize they’re drowsy and fall asleep in less than 60 seconds. That, driving-errors expert Dennis Wylie said, may not give them enough time to find a safe place to pull off the road to nap. Wylie also had testified that it’s common for drivers to embark on trips with five or six hours’ sleep.

That was the case for Rigel, Wylie said.

Because it was a juvenile case, Curry County District Attorney Everett Dial cannot discuss specifics about Rigel’s case, but he said his office “will continue to analyze cases where vehicle accidents result in death or physical injury.”

“We currently have several cases with vehicle injuries pending.  The key element  we look at is the mental state of the driver responsible for the accident,” Dial wrote in an email to the Pilot. “If the driver is negligent and causes someone’s death, or if the driver acts recklessly or intentionally to cause death or injury we will file the appropriate charges.” 

Curry County Judge Cynthia Beaman, who oversaw Rigel’s case in 2011, said she was unable to comment on the case because it was a juvenile case. 

On Friday, George Kelly, Rigel’s attorney in the appeals court, said he was pleased with the court’s decision, but couldn’t comment further because it was a juvenile case. 

In transcripts of interviews with police, Rigel claimed she knew in the minute beforehand that she was tired and needed to find a place to pull off to rest. There was a place to safely pull more than 1.8 miles before the accident, however an expert witness for the defense stated that people can go from initially feeling tired to falling asleep within 60 seconds. 

The appeals court agreed with the witness and said that “drivers are not always aware when they are overcome by fatigue.”

There had been a place to turn out a quarter of a mile before the accident on the northbound side of the road, but the court said most people would not consider looking on the other side of the highway when looking for a place to turnout. 

The night before the accident, Rigel had only slept five hours and had taken a one hour nap during the day. The opinion noted that it is common for drivers to make trips with only five or six hours of sleep. 

At the time of Rigel’s conviction, Judge Beaman said, “It’s clear to me that you were aware of the risk and you consciously disregarded the risk.”

The judge had taken into account Rigel’s statement to police. But the transcript used in the original trial had been wrong, misquoting Rigel. 

The Court of Appeals noted that Rigel had actually said “I knew I shouldn’t put it off,” which is different from “I knew I should have pulled off,” which the transcript used in the original trial said.

The Court of Appeals took the unusual step of looking at the case de novo, meaning the court look at it completely new. Rigel cannot be retried.