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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.

The judge encouraged both sides to try to settle the case before returning to court July 10 to set a trial date.

The decision followed a daylong hearing in which prosecutor Dustin Hughson laid out the evidence. Four CHP officers, a forensic toxicologist and Jay Hufford testified.

Hufford recounted driving to a restaurant for dinner with his wife, mother and father when he was stopped in heavy traffic at the Farmers Lane offramp on Highway 12.

He said he looked in his rearview mirror and saw a black pickup, closing fast. He couldn't move out of the way before it hit, instantly killing his wife and mother in the back seat.

Hufford recalled watching it all in his mirror.

"Upon impact, I saw their heads just drop," he said. "It was as if the power was turned off inside them."

Tognozzi, who was uninjured, cooperated with officers at the scene. CHP Officer Michael Rios testified Tognozzi admitted drinking one bottle of Lagunitas IPA about an hour before the crash and said he smoked marijuana the previous evening.

Tognozzi also told Rios he was expecting a text message as he drove to a friend's house in Rincon Valley and looked at his phone on the center console just before impact.

But Rios said Tognozzi didn't appear intoxicated. A breath test at the scene put his blood-alcohol level at 0.01 percent, well within the legal limit to drive, according to testimony.

Rios told other officers Tognozzi wasn't a "deuce," meaning he was not suspected of drunken-driving.

But Tognozzi was arrested anyway after officers searched his car and found several buds of marijuana in a glass jar and a pipe, Rios said.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

He was driven to the CHP office in Rohnert Park where he was tested three hours later by a drug recognition expert, Officer Greg White, who determined Tognozzi was under the influence of marijuana but not impaired.

Toxicology results from a urine sample confirmed marijuana was in his system. But it was impossible to say how long before the crash Tognozzi smoked or if it was a factor in the crash.

Hughson argued the totality of the evidence supported a finding of gross negligence. He said Tognozzi's judgment was affected by the marijuana to the point where he chose to drive too fast in a congested area and risked looking down at his phone.

A previous ticket Tognozzi received in 2011 for using a cellphone while driving should have made him more aware of the dangers, Hughson argued.

"Here we have evidence that the defendant looked down at his cellphone for three to five seconds," Hughson said. "That's a fairly extended period of time to look down at a phone while driving."

Tognozzi's lawyers argued his actions were not criminal. Attorney Matt Freeman said anyone who drives is at times guilty of inattention, whether they are adjusting a radio or reaching for a coffee cup. He pointed to a CHP report that showed Tognozzi was driving no faster than Jay Hufford when he passed over the same spot of the roadway before him.

"What we have here is a horrendous accident," Freeman told the judge. "What we have here is a case that belongs in civil court."

(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com)

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