Six Months for Killing Hanren Chang: Even Drunk Drivers Get Off Easy

Lowell High School student Hanren Chang. Image: ABC 7

It’s hard to imagine a more egregiously clear-cut case where a driver deserves a harsh prison term than when drunk driver Kieran Brewer ran over and killed a minor inside a crosswalk. Surely, unlike other cases where sober drivers killed pedestrians and faced few consequences, these circumstances would spur the judicial system into action.

Yet Brewer was sentenced to just six months in jail for driving drunk and killing Hanren Chang in a crosswalk on Sloat Boulevard last year, as she was returning home from celebrating her 17th birthday.

Kieran Brewer. Photo via CBS 5

Brewer’s total sentence includes six months in jail, six months in home detention, five years of probation, 300 hours of community service, and a nine-month treatment program for people who have driven under the influence, according to the SF Chronicle. Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy also ordered Brewer to pay the family more than $4,700 in restitution.

In addition, Judge Conroy struck down a bid from the prosecuting attorneys to apply the state’s “three strikes” law in this case. Prosecutors argued that Brewer inflicted great bodily injury, a crime that counts as a strike under the law.

“I don’t think the interest of justice will be served if Mr. Brewer gets this strike,” Conroy said in court, according to the Chronicle. “He has been consistently remorseful and cooperative with law enforcement.”

Remorse and cooperation apparently go a long way in court. So, too, does committing manslaughter with a car rather than a gun. As pointed out in a blog post by GJEL Accident Attorneys, a Streetsblog SF sponsor, “Involuntary manslaughter shootings usually result in sentences of years, not months”:

So why is a DUI vehicular manslaughter sentencing only six months? The answer is that drivers are generally not prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, even in cases as terrible as Hanren’s death…

Drivers are often not prosecuted, or face lighter charges, because district attorneys find it difficult to convict since juries often sympathize with drivers. Jurors often see pedestrian deaths as tragic accidents…. As a result, penalties in traffic crimes are often diluted. In Brewer’s case, despite his clearly reckless, irresponsible actions, he received the same sentence as an Oakland man that was just convicted of recycling fraud….

In Sweden, home to the safest streets in the world… Vehicular manslaughter while under the influence carries a sentence of up to six years. These measures, combined with effective street design, have reduced traffic fatality rates to a level that is 74% lower than the US. In contrast, the message sent in the Bay Area and beyond is that it’s ok to kill pedestrians, even if driving recklessly or drunk, as long as you’re remorseful.

Cars are weapons. Every year in the US, more people are killed by cars than by guns. A crime should not be discounted because the weapon has four wheels, even if it was involuntary. For Hanren and her family, it made no difference. Tragedies like this are not inevitable; we choose to let them happen through the design of our streets and our enforcement of traffic laws.

It was promising to hear District Attorney George Gascón’s announcement in February that he plans to hire an attorney dedicated to prosecuting vehicular manslaughter cases. However, that effort might not go very far if judges apply different standards to those who kill in a clear-cut, fatal DUI crash versus those who kill by other means. No amount of legal specialization can change an unwillingness to treat traffic violence as a serious crime.

  • I think the overall points about pedestrian fatality sentencing trends are accurate, but for this particular case- the Appeal article (http://sfappeal.com/2014/04/impaired-driver-who-killed-sf-teen-gets-six-month-jail-sentence/) has a little more information about the victim’s family and their perspective, which I think could played a role in this sentence:

    “Before surrendering to authorities, Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Sutton spoke on behalf of Hanren’s father, Wenhan Chang, who had declined to attend today’s sentencing.

    Sutton said she had spoken to Chang and said he was relieved to hear that Brewer was remorseful for his actions.

    “He was happy the matter was going to be resolved,” Sutton said.

    She added that Chang had relayed that he did not want further punishment for Brewer.

    Conroy called the father’s statements a “remarkable statement of compassion.””

  • Brad

    The most obvious punishment here would be that he can never drive again. Of course, that never seems to be part of the consequences for killing while behind the wheel. Heck, we even install alcohol monitors to make sure that these people can still get behind the wheel, as long as they haven’t had too much to drink. Driving is a wholly unnecessary privilege. Give the guy a bus pass, and sentence him to 20 years in prison if he’s ever caught driving again.

  • Wait, so even this guy is getting his license back? What the fuck?!

  • murphstahoe

    I’m with this. I really really really hate drunk driving but I still hesitate to call it evil. Rather than putting them in jail, a very lengthy license suspension with ZERO exceptions and a stiff prison sentence for violation would probably result in a net reduction in the amount of prisoners and a net positive in terms of deterrence and safety.

    The argument that someone can’t make a living without some sort of work exception rings hollow – it’s a lot easier to make a living with no driver’s license on the outside than it is to make a living in jail.

  • voltairesmistress

    Until and unless attitudes toward driver-caused collisions change, even the victims of vehicular manslaughter will collude with their family members’ killers.

  • gary

    What I have to say what should happen to this killer will get censored. There I said it in a round about way.

  • Remy Marathe

    I’m really depressed now.

  • Tom

    The law is supposed to be there to prevent him from killing his next victim. Even the family’s request should not be overriding the need to protect society. Prison and fines do little good though to prevent repeated offenses. The repeat rate for alcoholics is very high. The only way to really protect society from him is a lifetime drivers license suspension and a ban on him owning a car.

  • BBnet3000

    This things miss the point of the justice system. We as a society punish people who commit crimes to protect all of us, not on behalf of the victim’s family.

  • SFnative74

    I agree w a lifetime license ban. I’m not excited about sending more people to prison, which seems to do the opposite of correct and rehabilitate, contrary to the euphemism used to describe the state’s prison system, but there has to be a reasonable and effective consequence to an action like drunk driving, let alone killing someone while drunk driving. I think a lifetime license suspension for the latter makes perfect sense – along with restitution to the affected families ($4700? Really?), treatment programs, probation, etc.

  • EastBayer

    Yes, this really bothers me. Not just on transportation issues. The criminal justice system isn’t about closure for the victims, it’s about community safety.

  • The jury I sat on for a driver accused of DUI and assault with a deadly weapon on a SFPD officer (with his white Ford F-150) only determined guilt or innocence. And while I’m sure there were sentencing guidelines and limits, we’ as the jury, were not informed of them or allowed to consider them for our finding of guilt. After our finding, the judge determined guilt within those limits and guidelines.

    Too much of the language here is blaming the jury for a light sentence (either implied or direct) when it is solely the judge’s decision after a guilty verdict is found.

    Sure, a lighter charge may pursued (or not even pursued at all) because of what a prosecutor thinks a jury will convict on. But we’re missing the story here where a conviction on a charge is made and then the judge decides that the crime doesn’t deserve much of a punishment.

  • I think the whole country could do with an actual debate (after a basic philosophy course) as to the various aspects of punishment that we think are worthwhile, cause there’s a whole slew of things: retribution, revenge, reparation, reform, deterrence of others doing the same, deterrence from that person, etc.

  • Nathanael

    Apparently, people who drive drunk and murder people with cars get their car licenses back.

    OK then. I guess people who get drunk and murder people with guns should get their gun permits back, too. That makes about as much sense.

  • cherylmeril

    Demonic spirits are operating in our judicial system trashing beautiful souls while exonerating evil trash. These evil people in the judicial system enjoy this little game and are quite aware of what they’re doing trashing people this way.

  • Deftdrummer

    Isn’t it entirely possible though, that if the individual in question was so wanton as to drive drunk and end a life – that not holding a piece of plastic (license) while sober would prevent them from driving in the future for any reason?

    I think not but you’re on the right track.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

87-Year-Old Louis Van Velzen Killed by Driver on Deadly Sloat Blvd

|
Another life has been taken on Sloat Boulevard — the deadly, too-wide street slicing through SF’s southwestern Parkside and Sunset Districts past the San Francisco Zoo. Louis Van Velzen, an 87-year-old father, was killed by a driver while crossing Sloat at 43rd Avenue at 7:00 a.m. this morning, the SF Chronicle reported. Van Velzen was reportedly […]

Drunk Driver Kills Hanren Chang, 17, on Sloat Boulevard

|
Updated 11:16 p.m. An allegedly drunk driver was arrested for hitting and killing 17-year-old Hanren Chang on Sloat Boulevard near Vale Avenue on Saturday night. According to CBS 5, 29-year-old Keiran Brewer was driving westbound on Sloat at about 11:20 p.m. when he hit Chang, who was crossing the street in the northbound direction, and dragged […]

Outer Sunset Kids Urge Drivers to Slow Down Through DA-Funded Program

|
“Keep Sunset Slow” — that’s the message from kids in the Outer Sunset urging drivers to slow down and save lives this month. Elementary school students held their first event last week, part of a pedestrian safety campaign coordinated by the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center and the Outer Noriega Merchants Association. Though it’s a quiet beachside […]

Legal System Fails Again: No Charges for Trucker Who Killed Amelie

|
Note: Amelie Le Moullac’s mother, Jessie Jewitt, and other Bay Area musicians will perform at a benefit concert on Friday in Palo Alto at 7:30 p.m. Proceeds will go to Amélie’s Angels, “a fund dedicated to bringing the gifts of education, food, clothing, toys, and most importantly love and laughter, to the children of Haiti.” The truck […]