Prosecutors ask for more time in fatal Highway 12 crash case

Prosecutors said Friday they still were awaiting toxicology results to help them decide what charges to bring against a Rohnert Park man accused of being high on pot and using his cellphone when he caused the crash a week ago that killed two women.

A nervous-appearing Nicholas Lee Tognozzi, 30, made his first court hearing after the Saturday afternoon crash that killed Sharon Hufford, 74, and her daughter-in-law, Susan Hufford, 53, both of Santa Rosa.

He was out on $100,000 bail after his arrest by CHP officers on suspicion of gross vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence of drugs causing death.

But prosecutor Diana Gomez told Judge Julie Conger the results of a urine test were not back from the state Department of Justice and asked for more time to consider charges.

Gomez said later in the hallway the presence of marijuana could make the difference between misdemeanor allegations carrying a short jail term and more serious felonies that could result in a lengthy prison sentence.

"We're asking to expedite it given the nature of the charges," Gomez said outside court. "From that we'll know what, if anything, we'll charge."

The next court date is April 17.

Tognozzi declined to comment as he left court with family members. His lawyer, Matthew Freeman, acknowledged what he called a tragedy.

"Everybody is sympathetic to the families," Freeman said before walking away.

The crash happened about 5:30 p.m. Saturday as the women and their husbands were stopped at a red light on Highway 12 at Farmers Lane. The four were on their way to dinner.

Tognozzi's pickup truck slammed into the back of the Toyota Camry, killing the women instantly and injuring driver Jay Hufford, 54, and his father, Donald Hufford, 74.

He told the CHP he looked down at his cellphone to read a text-message at the time of the crash. Officers said Tognozzi appeared to be under the influence of marijuana and they took a urine sample.

His lawyer said a blood sample also was taken but prosecutors would not confirm it. A blood sample could determine more conclusively the amount of any marijuana in Tognozzi's system.

However, there are no laws in California setting a legal limit for the level of marijuana that drivers are permitted to have in their systems.

Gomez said the results would corroborate observations from the arresting officer and a drug recognition expert.

If Tognozzi used a cellphone while driving he could be charged with gross negligence, which carries more serious penalties, Gomez said.

Legal issues in his case could be similar to another fatal crash involving text-messaging if toxicology reports come back negative.

In 2010, Kaitlyn Dunaway, a 19-year-old Sonoma State University student, hit a two-year-old girl and her mother in a Rohnert Park crosswalk while using her cellphone.

The toddler was killed and the mother seriously injured.

Dunaway, a standout volleyball player, pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter and was ordered to serve five days in jail with 115 days of electronic home confinement.

As part of a court-ordered community service, she was to speak to high school students and others about the perils of distracted driving.

"It compares because it emphasizes the idea that when people are on their phones bad things can happen," Gomez said. "But other than that we have to look at every case on its own merits."

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