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High court: Lawmakers can't limit restitution owed by drivers who injure, kill
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High court: Lawmakers can't limit restitution owed by drivers who injure, kill

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Arizona Supreme Court Justice William G. Montgomery

Arizona Supreme Court Justice William G. Montgomery wrote the opinion for the unanimous court.

PHOENIX — State lawmakers cannot limit how much errant drivers have to pay the people they kill or injure, the Arizona Supreme Court has ruled.

The justices said Tuesday there’s nothing wrong with a 2006 law that requires those who are convicted of certain serious criminal traffic offenses to provide restitution.

Where they did find fault is the decision by lawmakers to limit such payments to no more than $10,000. Justice William G. Montgomery, writing for the unanimous court, said that runs afoul of the Victims’ Bill of Rights, a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1990.

The justices also said the fact that lawmakers raised that cap to $100,000 in 2018 does not affect their ruling, saying any limit is impermissible.

This case involves Vivek Patel, who was convicted of failing to yield when turning left, resulting in a crash that seriously injured someone else.

Nothing in the Victims’ Bill of Rights affects civil traffic citations.

But the nature of this crash made Patel guilty of violating a separate 2006 law that makes it a criminal offense to break certain traffic laws if they result in an accident that injures or kills someone else.

That triggered the constitutional amendment, which entitles victims to seek “prompt restitution from the person or persons convicted of the criminal conduct that caused the victim’s loss or injury.”

Phoenix municipal court set the damages at $161,192. Deducting from that the $100,000 paid by Patel’s insurance, that left him with the balance of $61,192 to pay.

He challenged the award, citing the $10,000 cap. And Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Patricia Starr accepted Patel’s argument that the language of the Victims’ Bill of Rights ensures only “prompt’’ compensation, contending that if voters had intended to require “full” restitution to victims, they would have said so.

Montgomery said that misses the point. The key, he said, is the word “restitution.”

The justice acknowledged that is not defined within the voter-approved amendment. But he said that isn’t necessary.

“The ordinary meaning of ‘restitution’ is restoring someone to a position he (or she) occupied before a particular event,” Montgomery wrote. “The right to restitution is thus a right to the full amount required to restore victims to the position they were in before the loss or injury caused by the criminal conduct.”

Montgomery said that is backed by information provided in the 1990 pamphlet sent to voters describing what was on the ballot that year.

“Legislative analysis noted that the VBR would guarantee a right to ‘receive restitution’ and that the VBR ‘would require the defendant to pay the victim for any harm caused to the victim,’” he wrote. Montgomery said that “acknowledges that the victim has been harmed and should be compensated for that harm.”

Montgomery said the constitutional provision does not allow for unlimited restitution.

For example, he said, it covers only “economic loss,” things like lost interest, lost earnings and other losses that would not have been incurred but for the offense. It does not cover things like an award for pain and suffering or any punitive damages.

Finally, the justices rejected arguments that the restitution cannot apply in this case because the specific offense of which Patel was convicted — violating certain traffic laws that result in death or serious physical injury — did not exist as a crime until 2006. Before that, it was simply a civil offense, with no right of restitution at all.

Montgomery said lawmakers are free to decide to classify offenses as they want, as well as the penalties.

“But once having created a criminal offense, the legislature may not restrict the rights of victims against whom the criminal offense has been committed,’’ he wrote.

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