Gaithersburg man gets 18 months for drunken driving, crash
Injured in collision was judge who once spared driver jail time in 1998 case
A Gaithersburg man has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for a drunken-driving crash that injured a former judge, who had spared him jail time years before.
Rene Fernandez, 45, also will serve three years of supervised probation in Montgomery County after he pleaded guilty to causing a life-threatening injury with a motor vehicle while intoxicated.
Fernandez swerved into oncoming traffic on an August afternoon in 2009, and crashed head-on into Edwin and Ellen Collier.
Edwin Collier, now a retired Montgomery County judge, had seen Fernandez in his courtroom in 1998 for drunken driving and sentenced him to 60 days in jail but suspended the term in favor of a year of supervised probation and abstaining from alcohol, according to court records.
Fernandez's attorney, John Severt of Rockville, last week deferred comment on the sentencing to his written statements delivered in court.
In Severt's statement, he emphasized that Fernandez is a good person who made a mistake.
"In his family life, his religious observations and his career Rene Fernandez has maintained the highest standards of reliability and good citizenship," Severt stated.
John Kudel, the Rockville attorney for the Colliers, said the plea agreement was a mercy decision.
"One factor for the State was whether to put the Colliers through a trial," he said. The plea agreement was deemed a better solution.
Fallout for the Colliers, however, has been extensive.
Edwin Collier uses a cane and his wife needs a walker because of their injuries, Kudel said.
They were forced to sell the family home in Bethesda, where they had lived since they were married, Kudel said, because they had trouble going up and down the stairs.
They sold their vacation home on the Eastern Shore for the same reason, he said.
The two now live in Riderwood, near Towson.
As a result of two alcohol-related driving charges in 1998, Fernandez "removed alcohol from his lifestyle," Severt wrote in his statement, adding that the last drink Fernandez had before the day of the 2009 crash was in 2005 at his brother's wedding.
Fernandez was not badly hurt in the crash.
Edwin Collier, 86, had fractured ribs and a broken leg.
Ellen Collier, 81, had a compound leg fracture, fractured ribs, a fractured hip and neck injuries.
"Despite the events of August 21, 2009, [Fernandez] is a caring, conscientious and responsible man," Severt wrote.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving Vice President for Public Policy J.T. Griffin said crashes such as Fernandez's are a tragedy in several ways.
"First, any time a drunk driver crashes it's a tragedy because it could have been prevented," he said. "Sadly there's a pattern in what we're seeing not just in Maryland but across the country."
Experienced defense attorneys often are paired against inexperienced prosecutors, who are outmatched, he said.
Kudel's website touts him as the "best DWI lawyer in the Washington metropolitan area."
According to Montgomery County Police, about 3,600 arrests for driving under the influence and driving while intoxicated were made each year between 2005 and 2009.
The number of convictions from these arrests was not available by Tuesday afternoon.
Police said they cannot comment on whether this case makes them think differently about enforcing drunk-driving laws, but county police spokeswoman Melanie Brenner offered this statement:
"In the department we consistently conduct enforcement, and it's our priority to find impaired drivers, especially enhancing our enforcement during holidays like St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo and any other potential days we would see an increase in the amount of impaired drivers."
Fernandez's sentence is fair, Kudel said, given the circumstances.
"Every case is different," he said. "This case tended to be on the more severe side, factually."