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Court rules Legislature can’t cap victims’ compensation

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State lawmakers cannot limit how much errant drivers have to pay the people they kill or injure, the Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled.

The judges voided a law first enacted in 2006 that requires those who are convicted of a traffic offense that causes serious physical injury or death to pay restitution, but limited that payment to no more than $10,000. Judge Lawrence Winthrop, writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, said that limit runs afoul of the Victims’ Bill of Rights, which is in the Arizona Constitution.

Lawmakers last year increased that cap to $100,000. But the court, by its ruling, concluded that any specific dollar limit set by the Legislature, no matter how high, would be unconstitutional.

The case involves Vivek Patel who was convicted of failing to yield when turning left, resulting in a crash that someone else seriously injured.

Lawrence Winthrop

Lawrence Winthrop

That also made Patel guilty of violating a separate law that makes it a criminal offense to break certain traffic laws if it results in an accident that injures or kills someone else.

That, in turn, triggered the Victims’ Bill of Rights, a 1990 voter-approved amendment to the Arizona Constitution. It entitles victims to seek “prompt restitution from the person or persons convicted of the criminal conduct that caused the victim’s loss or injury.”

On behalf of the victim, who was not identified in the ruling, the Phoenix city prosecutor sought restitution of $61,192, which the municipal judge awarded.

That decision, however, was overturned by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Patricia Starr who said that compensation is limited by the $10,000 cap which was in effect at the time of the accident. She accepted Patel’s argument that the language only ensures “prompt” compensation, contending that if voters had intended to require “full” restitution to victims they would have said so.

Winthrop acknowledged that the constitutional provision does not define “restitution.”

But he pointed to dictionary definitions which say that word means “restoring someone to a position he (or she) occupied before a particular event.”

Put simply, Winthrop wrote, that means crime victims are entitled to seek restitution that, if collected, will restore them to their economic status before the crime.

“The amount of compensation required to do that will depend on the crime and the resulting economic harm,” the judge said. More to the point, Winthrop said Patel’s claim that victims are not entitled to “full” compensation but only “prompt” compensation makes no sense.

“(It) would mean that a class of victims who suffered severe harm would not be entitled to restitution,” the judge wrote. “Based on a plain reading of the Arizona Constitution … we reject this argument.”

Winthrop also said that voters apparently were quite aware of what they were mandating in enacting the Victims’ Bill of Rights.

He pointed out that the publicity pamphlet sent to voters explaining the measure spelled out that, if approved would require the defendant to pay the victim for any harm caused.

“This requirement acknowledges that the victim has been harmed and should be compensated for that harm,” the pamphlet read.

“Given the reference to payment for ‘any harm,’ we find it implausible that the electorate intended to only guarantee a victim partial restitution,” Winthrop wrote.

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