KANSAS CITY — A Jackson County judge is considering whether a woman can be tried for involuntary manslaughter after she allegedly served alcohol to minors before one of them became involved in a fatal road accident.
If Judge Peggy Stevens McGraw allows the charge against Sandra S. Triebel, 47, to go to trial, Jackson County prosecutors would be trying to overcome a long legal tradition in Missouri of blaming only drunken drivers for fatal accidents, rather than the person who supplied the alcohol, The Kansas City Star reported.
Triebel is accused of providing alcohol at a party at a Kansas City rental home Oct. 31, 2009. One of the guests, then-19-year-old Kenneth S. Blake II, was drunk when he left the party and was involved in a traffic accident that killed a passenger in another vehicle, Laura B. Reynolds, 16.
Blake, whose blood alcohol level was more than 2 1/2 times the legal limit, later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and two counts of assault.
Jackson County prosecutors say they charged Triebel with involuntary manslaughter because she allegedly bought and mixed the drinks and knew Blake was a minor who was drunk when he left to drive himself home but did not call police.
That constitutes the kind of criminal negligence required for involuntary manslaughter, said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.
"A reasonable standard of care for children is much higher than what Ms. Triebel exhibited," Baker said at a hearing last week. "A really wonderful human being lost her life for it. She was a promising teenage girl and she lost her life because of all the actions Ms. Triebel put in play."
Triebel also faces two misdemeanor counts that typically accompany such accidents: One count of supplying liquor to a minor and one count of allowing a minor to drink intoxicating liquor on her property.
Triebel's attorney, Tiffany Leuty, argued that prosecutors could not demonstrate that Triebel caused the accident.
"We don't hold people responsible for a third party's actions," Leuty said. "This is nothing new. People serve underage people all the time in Missouri, but we don't have another person charged with involuntary manslaughter."
Leuty cited a decade of appeals court rulings in civil cases that has established a legal precedent that gives almost complete protection from civil liability to people who serve alcohol to guests, including minors, in their home.
Assistant prosecutor Janette Rodecap cited a 2003 case in which a Pennsylvania appeals court allowed a woman's manslaughter conviction to stand under a set of facts similar to those alleged in the Triebel case. She said the Pennsylvania judges obviously understood that fatal traffic accidents are not surprising when adults give alcohol to teenagers.
"This is not some shock that this might happen," Rodecap said. "It was reasonably foreseeable."
She also argued that Missouri law would permit the manslaughter charge because Triebel actions were a "contributing proximate cause" of the 16-year-old's death. That concept allows, for example, prosecutors to charge a burglar with murder if an armed homeowner kills the burglar's accomplice.
Ralph Blackman, president of the Century Council, a nonprofit funded by the liquor industry that fights drunken driving and underage drinking, said if Triebel is convicted and the case stands on appeal, Missouri would be on the "hard end" of penalties nationwide.
"The penalties ought to be tougher as the level of irresponsibility goes up," Blackman said.