A Rohnert Park man who slammed his truck into the back of a stopped car at a Santa Rosa offramp, killing two women, showed gross negligence by looking at his cellphone moments before the crash and driving too fast for conditions, a judge ruled Thursday.
Nicholas Tognozzi, 30, faces more than a dozen years in prison in the March 15 crash that killed Sue Hufford, 53, and her mother-in-law, Sharon Hufford, 74.
Judge Rene Chouteau said following a preliminary hearing that Tognozzi was not impaired by alcohol or marijuana when he barreled his GMC pickup into their Toyota Camry on Highway 12 at Farmers Lane. Prosecutors said some level of intoxication was a factor.
But he said he showed unusual recklessness by taking his eyes off the road for three to five seconds to check for text messages while accelerating up to 53 mph into a known bottleneck.
"In the court's judgment, that is gross negligence," Chouteau said.
He found Tognozzi could be tried on two counts of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and enhancements for causing great bodily injury to another elderly passenger, Donald Hufford, who rode in the front seat next to his son, driver Jay Hufford.
If convicted, Tognozzi could be sentenced to a maximum of 12 years and four months in prison.
Without gross negligence, the charges would have dropped to misdemeanors punishable by up to two years in county jail, Chief Deputy District Attorney Spencer Brady said.
"We obviously think the judge made the right call," Brady said.
Tognozzi, who is in custody with bail set at $280,000, bowed his head when Chouteau announced his ruling.