Stallworth may escape manslaughter charge

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte' Stallworth(notes) could avoid a DUI manslaughter conviction from the March 14 accident that killed a Miami man even if he is found to have been impaired while driving, according to two NFL sources and two Florida-based attorneys.

Stallworth, who is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday, may still have to serve time in jail and reach a civil settlement with the family of Mario Reyes, who was killed when Stallworth hit him in the early morning hours of March 14. However, Stallworth's jail time could be only a matter of two or three months rather than the possibility of up to 15 years in prison under state law, two NFL sources said this week. Beyond that, Stallworth could play this season, one of the sources said.

According to Florida's DUI manslaughter law, there are exceptions under what is called "causation" of an accident. In short, someone who is driving drunk and causes an accident is not necessarily responsible if the other party did something to contribute to the accident. Florida statute 316.119 was changed in the 1980s to reflect that after a state Supreme Court judge ruled that the state's previous strict liability standard on drunken drivers was essentially unfair.

The exception is based on the idea that if a drunken driver stopped at an intersection was hit by another car and the driver of the other car died, the drunken driver should not be held responsible.

"There are a number of issues in that case that may allow him to get off with regard to causation," said attorney George Charnota, who has practiced law in South Florida for nine years and is a former prosecutor. Charnota is not involved in Stallworth's case, but said the reports he has read about the case indicate the defense could use causation as an angle to aid Stallworth.

In this case, Reyes allegedly was jaywalking at the time he was hit and killed by Stallworth. If Reyes was jaywalking, it could be argued he contributed to the accident. In addition, Stallworth claimed to have flashed his lights and honked his horn at Reyes, which is being interpreted by Stallworth's side as a way of warning Reyes to get out of the way.

"The state must first prove he was impaired, which from what I've read and heard could be a problem in this case, and then must prove that he caused the death," said attorney Michael Cohen, who has practiced in Miami for 27 years and is not representing Stallworth.

Charnota reiterated that the alleged facts in this case create the likelihood that an argument over causation could be made.

"There's absolutely an argument that would be made depending on how you read the situation. Obviously the fact can be looked at differently if you're the prosecutor or the defense attorney," Charnota said. "The prosecutor would likely argue that if Stallworth had enough time to flash his lights and honk, why didn't he have time to brake? Likewise, the defense would argue how can you expect Stallworth to anticipate that [Reyes] would dart out in the street where there was no crosswalk."

In short, Stallworth could face anything from a second-degree felony charge of DUI manslaughter to a second-degree misdemeanor charge of DUI.