In December, 26-year-old commercial truck driver Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced to 110 years in prison for a 2019 runaway truck crash. While driving down Interstate 70 in Colorado, Aguilera-Mederos lost control of his brakes, speeding down the highway at 85 miles per hour until he finally crashed into stopped traffic, killing four and injuring others. October jury convicted Aguilera-Mederos of “four counts of vehicular homicide, six counts of first-degree assault, 10 counts of attempted first-degree assault, four counts of careless driving causing death, two counts of vehicular assault and one count of reckless driving,” Colorado Public Radio reports. The lengthy sentence, based on Colorado’s mandatory minimums, has received significant backlash and has triggered protests from citizens and truckers alike. As a result, the State has granted the driver a reconsideration hearing. However, the systemic issues this case has highlighted must be further addressed to achieve more long-lasting justice.
The Colorado District Court Judge on the case, Bruce Jones, expressed his lack of agency in enacting the harsh sentence, confirming that he had to adhere to Colorado’s mandatory minimum sentences for the crimes. Mandatory minimums mean that specific crimes result in specific punishments or a pre-determined amount of time in jail; if an individual commits said crime, said individual must be charged with the prescribed sentence. Additionally, if multiple crimes are committed, then Coloradan law says that the separate sentences for each conviction must be served consecutively – ten years served for one sentence can’t be used to pay off another. These laws are why Aguilera-Mederos’s sentence is so long.
“[W]e are talking about five lives gone, opposed to four now,” Colorado protestor Jessica Luna told 9News.
Although the reconsideration hearing may allow Rogel Aguilera-Mederos a second chance at justice, this would not be necessary if the laws were fairer in the first place. “This type of injustice has to stop. It has to stop at every level,” Leonard Martinez, the attorney for the truck driver and his family, said in a conversation with the Denver Post. “[The court’s injustice] starts with legislation, it starts with the district attorney’s offices and it starts with our judges. We cannot stop until this system has been changed.” While they believe that the defendant should serve some level of time for his crimes, the crash victims’ families also consider the sentence excessive and are advocating for sentencing reform.
A Colorado task force for sentencing reform has been “appreciative” of the attention the case has brought to the injustices within the state’s criminal justice system, one member, Senator Julie Gonzales, told Colorado Public Radio. “[Aguilera-Mederos’s case] highlights a stark reality in Colorado because our felony sentencing laws are complicated, cumbersome and oftentimes don’t afford discretion,” she said.
Mandatory minimums have long been a source of tension within the United States’ judicial system. These laws initially arose in the early 1900s to address drug offenses and resurfaced amidst President Reagan’s War on Drugs, allowing Reagan’s government to throw many marginalized populations and poor individuals in jail for minor breaches. Every state in the U.S. now has some level of mandatory minimums, which have become even more notorious in the wake of Black Lives Matter and its protests against how Black people and other people of color are treated in the American criminal system. According to a 2014 study out of the University of Michigan, mandatory minimums are brought against Black defendants 65% more often than against white litigants. When people of color are already overrepresented in our criminal system – “[O]ne out of every three African-American men can expect to go to prison during their lifetime, in contrast with 1 out of 17 white men,” the Equal Justice Initiative reports – mandatory minimums further contribute to the inequitable distribution of sentencing and incarceration in the U.S. Therefore, they are a compelling target for justice reform.
In some cases, mandatory minimums have the potential to safeguard equality by ensuring that those with privilege or funds cannot escape responsibility for their crimes. Many on social media are comparing Aguilera-Mederos’s case to that of Ethan Couch, a white man who received only 720 days in jail after killing four while drunk driving and later fleeing the country and violating parole – his lawyers cited his affluent upbringing as defense for his actions. In situations like Couch’s, more measured minimums could actually help achieve justice. If this is their desired purpose, however, mandatory minimums must be applied equally and fairly across the board, rather than used to continually oppress people of color.
Right now, these sentences are perpetuating injustice rather than defending justice. Although they may make sense in certain cases, they must be significantly reduced and reformed. Implementing some range of time for certain transgressions rather than a hard minimum would return a level of discretion and subjective judgement to prosecutors and judges. For crimes such as murder, which is widely considered to deserve a certain amount of time in prison, a sentence length should be chosen as a true minimum, allowing a possibility to add additional time, shorten the sentence, or offer parole based on the specific case. Regardless of the crime, a life sentence or its equivalent should not and can never be considered a “minimum.”
Aguilera-Mederos’s case also raises other considerations of injustice. While his truck was out of control and speeding down the highway, Aguilera-Mederos passed by two runaway truck ramps, which are intended to stop trucks in exactly his situation. His defense argued that he was “too overwhelmed” to notice them. While this was clearly negligent on his part, the blame can also be placed on truck companies. Truckers are in short supply and high demand across the board. In the name of rapidly hiring more trucking employees, it has become much easier to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License, with these certificates sometimes coming from companies that are not approved or verified. It is possible that Aguilera-Mederos did not receive adequate training from his company, a fact which was likely worsened by his self-proclaimed lack of English proficiency as a Cuban immigrant.
While not as relevant to the case itself, the defendant and his family also used translators during proceedings. With translators in similarly high demand and a similarly faulty training system, Aguilera-Mederos may not have had entirely fair representation in court, pointing to another barrier to justice within the United States.
Aside from individual considerations, the owner of the truck, Castellano 03 Trucking, is also at fault. According to Alyssa Shotwell at The Mary Sue, this company has had a disproportionate history of vehicle safety issues. After the accident, the company rapidly closed and the same owner re-opened Volt Trucking in Texas, which has now also recorded numerous brake issues in its vehicles. Although the driver must be held responsible for the deaths, many of the other violations, such as vehicular assault, should be attributed to the company.
Public responses to the case have been surprising. A crowd of about 100 people gathered at Denver’s capitol on December 29th to protest the decision and call for clemency for the driver. Online, 4.6 million individuals have signed a petition calling for Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis, to modify Aguilera-Mederos’s sentence, and within the trucking community, drivers have refused to make trips to Colorado until justice is achieved. This is absolutely not the first case in which mandatory minimums have unjustly robbed individuals of years of life. However, the attention this specific case is getting, both domestically and internationally, may be the key to mandatory minimum and sentencing reform within Colorado and around the nation.
The ideal outcome of Rogel Aguilera-Mederos’s reconsideration hearing is a modification of his sentence. However, one act of justice cannot erase decades of injustice or fix an unfair system. Both the Colorado courts and the larger United States judicial system must undertake aggressive sentencing reform now, beginning with severe modifications of mandatory minimums. The courts should uphold the right to life for every individual rather than arbitrarily taking life away from people through a “one size fits all” punishment.
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