Victim's sister says 'two months is not enough' for semi driver involved in fatal 2021 crash near Grand Forks
While the agreement shocked the victim's family, other cases were cited during the sentencing process, leading the state to avoid recommending "a sentence that was drastically different."
GRAND FORKS – Andrea Jayne couldn’t believe it when the man responsible for an eight-vehicle crash that killed her brother was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
“Two months is not enough time,” Jayne said. “... It’s like saying that my brother’s life was worth two months.”
It’s been a month since Steven Charles Piechowski, from Felton, Minnesota, was sentenced for causing the death of Eric Jayne, as well as the injuries of others . Andrea Jayne is still trying to come to terms with a sentence she feels doesn’t fit the severity of the crime.
Piechowski originally was charged with Class B felony manslaughter, which has a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The charge was later amended to Class C felony negligent homicide, per Piechowski’s plea agreement.
While the agreement shocked Jayne’s family, other — somewhat similar — cases were cited during the sentencing process, leading the state to avoid recommending "a sentence that was drastically different," according to the sentencing memorandum.
Jayne said her family didn’t know about the proposed plea agreement and amended charge until they came across a news article a month before the sentencing.
“We were all in the dark. We did not know what was going on,” said Jayne. “... The family would have never agreed to just two months.”
Jayne took action as soon as she learned of the plea agreement.
“I got a number of people to write statements,” said Jayne. “… My brother was connected to people all across the United States, and in other parts of the world, with his veterinary work.”
However, Jayne said even if it wasn’t her brother, “if it was anybody else,” Piechowski “should have had more time.”
Piechowski also was convicted of "reckless endangerment-extreme indifference,” which was deemed a misdemeanor by disposition, as well as five counts of Class A misdemeanor aggravated reckless driving.
On July 2, 2021, Piechowski was driving a semi on Highway 2, traveling east in a construction zone just outside of Grand Forks. The westbound lanes were closed and traffic “was head to head,” according to an affidavit in the case.
Other drivers called the authorities about Piechowski’s driving. The affidavit states Piechowski “was called in as driving recklessly,” reportedly “swerving all over the roadway.”
“A picture was taken of Piechowski driving on the shoulder of the roadway just prior to the crash,” the affidavit said.
Piechowski approached an intersection where several vehicles were stopped at a red light. The truck he was driving struck the rear of a Chevrolet Malibu, starting a chain reaction crash that involved six other vehicles. Five people were substantially or seriously injured. The driver of the Malibu, Eric Jayne, died.
According to court documents, Piechowski said he dropped a lit cigarette and was searching for it at the time of the crash. Andrea Jayne questions whether that truly was the case, citing the earlier reports of Piechowski driving “recklessly.”
“It was not a case of he just looked down and then ran into my brother. He was driving erratically for at least 20 minutes to half an hour – who knows how long? – before he ran into stopped traffic,” Jayne said.
Jayne also said it was “a long line of standing traffic at a light.”
In the state’s sentencing memorandum, the state argued Piechowski’s “excuse” doesn’t “justify his conduct.”
“If the cigarette incident is truly what happened, Mr. Piechowski should have pulled over … rather than looking for his cigarette while traveling down the roadway,” the memorandum said.
Whatever the cause, the crash was notable for its seriousness.
“We have cars all over the place and we’re trying to see which cars are damaged and which ones aren’t,” Grand Forks County Chief Deputy David Stromberg told the media shortly after the crash.
A few hours later, North Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Jeff Bauske said “this is a total mess out here.”
Reckless vs. negligent
It’s not uncommon for a defendant to be convicted of a lesser crime than they are originally charged with, according to Grand Forks County State’s Attorney Haley Wamstad.
She said that before filing charges, the state reviews police reports and speaks to law enforcement.
“We fit the facts and circumstances of that case to the statute that we think is the most appropriate,” said Wamstad. “ … With that said, there’s often information that comes out later.”
Wamstad said crash cases have “a pretty in-depth investigation.” Oftentimes, search warrants are issued for the defendant’s cell phone and other devices in the vehicle that may provide useful information – for example, if the accused was under the influence or texting while driving.
Investigators also conduct a crash analysis or reconstruction, which Wamstad said “takes a considerable period of time to complete.”
“Sometimes we can’t wait for that analysis to be completed at the time we charge,” said Wamstad. “... As new information is coming in, we’re constantly assessing our case.”
New information may result in an amended lesser charge or, less often, an amended greater charge. If the state and defense come to a plea agreement, “sometimes that calls for an amended charge as well,” Wamstad said.
In Piechowski’s case, his Class B felony manslaughter charge was amended to Class C felony negligent homicide, cutting the maximum sentence in half.
Wamstad said in some cases, a defendant’s behavior could be defined as both reckless and negligent and therefore qualify for either charge; however, in other cases, there’s a “big distinction.”
According to North Dakota Century Code, someone is guilty of manslaughter if they “recklessly [cause] the death of another human being.”
Behaving “recklessly” is defined in the code as consciously engaging in conduct that shows a clearly unjustifiable disregard for likely risks, with “such disregard involving a gross deviation from acceptable standards of conduct.”
In the case of a DUI – which isn’t relevant in the Piechowski case – “awareness of the risk” is not required in order for the driver's actions to be deemed “reckless.”
On the other hand, the code states someone is guilty of negligent homicide if they “negligently [cause] the death of another human being.”
“Negligent homicide is a charge … that anticipates someone that acts negligently – there is no intentional, or even willful, conduct,” Erica A. Skogen Hovey, Piechowski’s defense attorney, said in an interview with the Herald.
However, Andrea Jayne believes Piechowski’s actions were “kind of beyond negligence.”
“Just two months”
Piechowski was sentenced to five years with all but 120 days suspended, with 60 days in jail and the remaining on electronic home monitoring. The suspended sentence means if he violates any conditions of his two-year probation, he will risk serving the entire five years.
Hovey said the task of coming to a plea agreement between the defense and the state was “an extensive process.”
“There's a lot of back and forth,” Hovey said. “It's a long process, and there's a lot of thought that goes into it – from all angles. From the court, from the victim's perspective, from the prosecutor’s perspective and, of course, from the defendant’s perspective.”
The Herald sought to speak to Piechowski for this report, but Hovey said she advised him not to comment.
Piechowski, with one day served at the time of his sentencing, is now serving two months in jail. Upon his release, he’ll begin the two months of home monitoring.
The state and defense both cited cases similar to Piechowski’s in sentencing memorandums to assist the court in determining a sentence. Of the 25 cited cases, only five defendants were given jail sentences equal to or greater than Piechowski’s two months.
None of the cited cases noted 911 calls made prior to the crash, although many of the cases are sealed and it cannot be determined whether prior 911 calls were made.
Timothy McLaughlin, of Bismarck, received the longest sentence in the cases cited in the sentencing memorandums: 10 years with two suspended.
In 2020, McLaughlin was involved in a crash that resulted in one death and multiple injuries. He went to trial and was found guilty of Class B felony manslaughter as well as two counts of Class A misdemeanor reckless endangerment. Law enforcement’s investigation concluded McLaughlin had been texting, using his GPS and searching for adult material while driving, according to the state’s sentencing memorandum.
However, others charged with manslaughter pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, such as negligent homicide.
Hovey said negligent homicide convictions often result in probation without any jail time, which is consistent with the cited cases.
“A Class C felony for negligent homicide is generally a presumed probation case,” said Hovey. “That’s what the statute says. … Obviously, there are different factors that would stray away from presumed probation, but the intent behind it is … to account for crimes that are not intentional.”
Based on these and other related factors, the state “did not feel it was appropriate to recommend a sentence that was drastically different from the majority of other similar cases in the state of North Dakota,” according to the sentencing memorandum.
“Obviously, these types of cases are incredibly difficult for everyone involved. But … extensive periods in jail … [don’t] heal people from, you know, the pain that they feel from losing their loved one,” Hovey said.
With the memory of her family’s substantial loss sharp in her mind, Jayne is unsatisfied.
“I didn’t know that you could just kill somebody with your car and then only go to jail for two months,” she said.
During the sentencing, Jayne said Piechowski shouldn’t be able to drive “ever again.”
The state’s sentencing memorandum said “[o]ne would hope that Mr. Piechowski would not be licensed to operate a semi-truck after the destruction and devastation he [caused] in this instance. … [H]e was entrusted to operate a semi-truck as a commercial truck driver, and he betrayed that trust by driving in such a reckless manner.”
However, that is not for the court to decide, as license suspension is handled through the Department of Transportation, according to Wamstad.
Piechowski will be required to complete a chemical addiction evaluation or other evaluation/s deemed necessary as a condition of his probation. He also may be required to complete a cognitive restructuring program if his probation officer believes it’s appropriate.
No other rehabilitative efforts are currently outlined in Piechowski’s probation instructions.