HARTFORD—Christopher Toppi, the driver of the car involved in a fatal school bus accident in January, will be tried in juvenile court.
Toppi's lawyer Michael Georgetti argued in Superior Court on Thursday that a law that went into effect Jan. 1 allowed for the transfer of the case to juvenile court. Toppi, 17, is charged with negligent homicide in connection with the crash, which took place Jan. 9.
Toppi was 16 when the accident occurred. The law applies to 16-year-olds charged with offenses that occurred after Jan. 1. The law took effect July 1. "A judge has to find that the juvenile court would more appropriately address the needs of the youth and that the youth and the community would be better served by treating the youth as a [juvenile]," Georgetti said.
Toppi, a student at the Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, was charged July 20 with negligent homicide with a motor vehicle, failure to drive in the proper lane and driving too fast for conditions. All three are motor vehicle offenses.
Toppi was driving a Volvo station wagon westbound on I-84 in Hartford, on his way to an SAT preparation class, when the car collided with a school bus carrying students from the Greater Hartford Academy of Mathematics and Science to a robotics program. The school bus went off the highway and down a steep embankment.
One student aboard the bus, Vikas Parikh, 16, of Rocky Hill, was fatally injured. Four other students suffered serious injuries. There were 16 students and a teacher on the bus.
The school bus driver, Paul Burns of Hartford, was cited for driving a vehicle he was not licensed to drive, and the bus company, Specialty Transportation of Hartford, was cited for failure to maintain records, said Bill Seymour, a state Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman.
The amendment to the law allowing for the transfer of the case against Toppi to juvenile court was sought by police officers and juvenile court authorities as a means of streamlining the handling of motor vehicle offenses.
Prior to the law's enactment, police officers investigating accidents and motor vehicle incidents involving 16-year-olds would have to consult a voluminous list of offenses to determine whether to refer the youth to juvenile court or adult court, said state Rep. Michael Lawlor, D- East Haven, the co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee. Most motor vehicle offenses were handled in adult court, Lawlor said, but there were some that carried significant penalties that went to juvenile court.
For the offenses that were supposed to go to juvenile court, the rules governing juvenile arrests applied, West Hartford police Chief James Strillacci said. That meant, in some cases, that police officers could not question 16-year-olds about what happened at an accident without their parents' consent, he said. It was a cumbersome process, and police and others had asked that the process be simplified, Strillacci said.
The law was vetted by the legislature and passed the state House but died on the Senate calendar during the regular legislative session, Lawlor said. It was passed during the special session and signed by the governor.
"The bill was totally vetted through the legislative process," Lawlor said. And Georgetti's request that Toppi's case be moved is the kind of case that legislators had in mind, he said.
Connecticut has been increasing the age for which juvenile court applies. It was originally for offenders younger than 16. It now covers offenders younger than 17. Effective Jan. 1, 2012, it will cover offenders younger than 18.
Should a judge grant Toppi's request to have his case moved to juvenile court, proceedings will be out of public view. Victims in the case, however, will continue to have the same rights they had in adult court, Lawlor said. The penalties that Toppi faces are also not necessarily less severe, Lawlor said.
"You can still go to jail or be placed on probation," Lawlor said.