A Rohnert Park man accused of killing two Santa Rosa women in a distracted-driving crash caused when he glanced at his cellphone settled his case Wednesday with an agreement to serve six months in jail.
Nicholas Tognozzi, 30, was facing trial on two counts of felony vehicular manslaughter in the March 15 crash that killed Sue Hufford, 53, and her mother- in-law, Sharon Hufford, 74.
Tognozzi was charged with rear-ending the Huffords’ car when he looked down at his phone while driving on Highway 12 to see if he received a text message.
He faced nearly a dozen years in prison if convicted. His trial was scheduled for Aug. 29.
Instead, Tognozzi reached a plea bargain with Judge Rene Chouteau that would allow members of the Hufford family to avoid testifying, said his lawyer, Matt Freeman.
He pleaded no contest to all charges in exchange for a one-year jail sentence and three years of probation. Under state sentencing laws and with credit for time served, he could be out by late December, Freeman said.
Also, Chouteau said he would reduce the convictions to misdemeanors if Tognozzi completes 18 months of probation.
“We never thought this was a felony case,” Freeman said outside court. “There was no impaired driving and no speeding. It was inattention. He glanced down at his phone.”
Chouteau offered no explanation for the agreement.
Prosecutor Dustin Hughson said he did not make a settlement offer to Tognozzi or enter the agreement. The victims’ family members were aware of the proposed deal but did not share their feelings about it, he said. A lawyer for the Huffords did not return a call seeking comment.
The family will be allowed to speak at Tognozzi’s sentencing, set for Sept. 19.
“Distracted driving results in injury and death,” District Attorney Jill Ravitch said in an email Wednesday. “I will continue to aggressively prosecute these cases, and lobby for stiffer penalties to address this problem. However, we can all reduce the risk by paying attention when (we) get behind the wheel.”
The case was the latest in Sonoma County involving a fatal crash caused by cellphone use.
In 2010, Kaityln Dunaway, a 19-year-old Sonoma State University student, hit a 2-year-old girl and her mother in a Rohnert Park crosswalk while texting and driving.
The toddler was killed and the mother was seriously injured.
Dunaway, a star volleyball player, pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced in 2011 to five days in jail with 115 days of electronic home confinement.
The most recent crash happened as Sue and Sharon Hufford drove to dinner with their husbands, Jay Hufford, 54, and his father Donald Hufford, 74.
They became stopped in heavy traffic on eastbound Highway 12, approaching the offramp to Farmers Lane. Jay Hufford, who was driving the Toyota Camry, testified at a preliminary hearing he looked in his rear-view mirror and saw a truck coming up behind him, closing fast.
He couldn’t move out of the way before it hit, instantly killing his wife and mother in the back seat.
Tognozzi, who was uninjured, cooperated with officers at the scene. He admitted drinking one bottle of beer about an hour before the crash and said he smoked marijuana the previous evening.