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Hermitage woman faces vehicular homicide charges in rare use of law after handing over keys to boyfriend

6:24 PM, Feb 19, 2012   |    comments
Erin Brown
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Written by Nate Rau, The Tennessean

A 21-year-old Hermitage woman who had been out drinking late one night in December gave her car keys to her 23-year-old boyfriend, thinking he was sober enough to drive.

But the night turned tragic when her boyfriend struck and killed two young men about their same age on Demonbreun Street near the Music Row roundabout, then drove her Toyota Scion across a median and hit a taxicab head-on.

Erin Brown's boyfriend was charged with vehicular homicide and assault. She had been in the passenger seat. But in a rare use of the law, prosecutors also are charging Brown with the same crimes.

She faces as many as three decades in prison.

Police and prosecutors says Brown violated a part of the highway safety section of the Tennessee Code that makes it unlawful for the owner of a vehicle to direct, require or knowingly permit the operation of a vehicle in any manner contrary to the law.

Allowing someone to drive your car when you know they are drunk, prosecutors say, makes you criminally responsible for their actions.

The District Attorney's Office commonly charges vehicle owners with driving under the influence for allowing a drunk person to drive their car.

But the vehicular homicide charge, a felony, against Brown is the first of its kind in Nashville.

Brown told police that she gave her keys to her boyfriend, Trevor Bradshaw, who she said "was drunker than she thought he was," according to the arrest warrant.

The unprecedented nature of the case has caught the attention of defense attorneys across Tennessee, who say their clients are often unaware they could be criminally responsible for someone else driving their car.

Brown's preliminary hearing is scheduled for Thursday in General Sessions Court.

Arrest warrants for Brown and Bradshaw shed some light on what took place the early morning hours of Dec 10. At about 2:30 a.m., Bradshaw was driving the Scion west on Demonbreun when it struck 22-year-old Michael Brooksher and his best friend 23-year-old Tommy Allen, police say. The Scion then crossed the median and hit a taxicab head-on.

Bradshaw immediately fled the area only to be brought back to the scene by two witnesses, according to the warrant. Bradshaw fled again before police arrived on the scene, according to police.

After being transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Brooksher died on Dec. 12. Allen was in a coma for nearly two months before succumbing to his injuries on Feb. 7. The taxi driver suffered minor injuries.

Brown, who also had minor injuries, stayed on the scene. And eventually, Bradshaw turned himself into police.
'High bar to clear'

Nashville attorney Richard McGee, who is representing Brown, said the district attorney would have "an awfully high bar to clear" to prove the charges against his client. McGee did not respond to requests for further comment, and multiple efforts to reach Brown were unsuccessful.

But Nashville-area defense attorneys who frequently handle DUI cases agree with McGee's assessment.

"You're not going to win that case in trial," said Nashville criminal defense attorney Joel Crim, who worked in the District Attorney's Office for five years. "The jury is going to understand the tragedy. I mean, the driver didn't want anybody to get killed. The young lady, of course, didn't want anybody to get killed."

The District Attorney's Office feels differently.

Kyle Anderson, who leads the DA's Vehicular Crimes Unit, said this is the first time a non-driver has been charged with vehicular homicide since the unit was formed in 2007. By comparison, the unit has handled 50 cases against drivers for vehicular homicide over that same time.

Metro police spokesman Don Aaron, who has been with the department for 20 years, said he was unaware of a vehicular homicide charge against a non-driver in Davidson County before Brown's case.

Anderson said he could not comment on the charges against Brown because of the pending trial.

But Anderson said he did believe the owner of a vehicle should be responsible if he knowingly gives his keys to a person whose driving would be impaired.

Defense attorneys say they frequently represent clients charged with DUI for giving their keys to a drunken driver. In 2007 former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair was arrested under those circumstances when his friend Jamie Cartwright was arrested for a DUI while driving McNair's Dodge pickup. The charges against McNair and Cartwright were ultimately dismissed.

"It seems common sense to me. If you let a drunk or impaired person drive a car, you're responsible," Anderson said.

Anderson added that it is a "typical use of prosecutorial discretion" for a district attorney to drop charges against the owner of a vehicle in a DUI case if the driver pleads guilty.
Similar incident

Recent case law reveals one similar incident, which took place in Stewart County in 2004. Christopher Pierce was convicted of vehicular homicide in that case. Police say Pierce bought beers for a 17-year-old and then directed him to drive a car. The 17-year-old ultimately lost control of the vehicle and struck a tree at a high speed, killing a 13-year-old passenger.

Though the circumstances of that case were different than the December hit-and-run, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's conviction by specifically pointing out the evidence was sufficient for the jury to conclude Pierce knew the driver was intoxicated.

Metro police say Brown also knew Bradshaw was drunk.

"Ms. Brown provided the keys to Mr. Bradshaw and allowed him to operate her vehicle after she had knowledge Mr. Bradshaw had been drinking that night and was drunk," the warrant states.

In addition to criminal charges, Brown and Bradshaw have already been subjected to a civil suit from Brooksher's family. Brooksher's father, Jeffrey Brooksher, is seeking $10 million.

On his Facebook page, Jeffrey Brooksher says he wants Brown and Bradshaw to be held accountable.

"I just feel all this (could have) been avoided with a simple phone call. One of them (could have) called (their) parent to pick them up. (So) what if they (would have) caught hell. Least Michael & Tommy would still b here for us to (cherish)," says one Facebook post.

Crim said case law establishes that Brown could be responsible for the deaths of Brooksher and Allen in a civil lawsuit, but he questioned whether criminal charges were appropriate.

"It's so far down the causal chain for her. It's a negligent act, and I think somebody can sue her. But in terms of, 'Should she go to jail for her decision?' No, I don't think she should," Crim said.

"A jury is going to look and they're going to see a 21-year-old girl. They're going to ask themselves, 'Do we think this girl's life should be ruined because she let someone else drive her car?' That's a tough conclusion to come to."

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