CONCORD, N.H. — Chad Belleville of Barnstead was driving to pick up Chinese food in December 2010 when he looked down at his cellphone to read a text message.
“The next thing you know, I crashed,” he told a state trooper.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday in his appeal of his vehicular assault and second-degree assault convictions in a case Belleville’s lawyer says should strike a nerve in any driver with a cellphone.
Texting while driving is against the law in New Hampshire, but reading a text message while driving is not.
In Belleville’s case, prosecutors will argue his “persistent and continued inattention” led to the accident that left a teenage boy with a traumatic brain injury.
Belleville’s car crossed a median lane and barely missed one car, prosecutors say, before hitting the car in which Donald Flanders III was riding. Flanders was thrown from the car. Investigators ruled out speed and alcohol as contributing factors.
Belleville, 30, is serving a 3 1/2- to seven-year sentence.
“It’s not a burglary or an armed robbery,” said David Rothstein, Belleville’s lawyer. “This is a case where you say, ‘Gosh, I might have done that. I have done that.’ ”
The circumstances are sure to resonate with the student audience who will attend Thursday’s arguments at Concord High School, a venue chosen as part of the court’s “On the Road” series to educate the public about the role and workings of the court.
Assistant Attorney General Diane Fenton in her brief likens the case to one the justices ruled on this year involving a woman who struck and killed a pedestrian in Franklin while talking on her cellphone. The court unanimously upheld the negligent homicide conviction of Lynne Dion of Franklin in the death of Genny Bassett in 2009.
In the court’s February ruling, Justice Carol Ann Conboy wrote that even conduct that is allowed, including talking on a cellphone while driving, can be criminal if it results in inattention and distraction. The justices heard arguments in that case at Monadnock Regional High School, a year to the day before they hear arguments in Belleville’s case.
Rothstein will argue that Belleville’s conduct wasn’t reckless. He cites the court’s reversal in 2009 of three negligent homicide convictions against Joshua Shepard, whose car crossed the center line and killed three motorcyclists in Thornton at the start of Laconia’s Motorcycle Week in 2006. The court ruled that Shepard’s “two-second failure to keep his car in its lane” did not constitute criminal negligence.
“I don’t know that looking down at your cellphone is different than looking back at your kid who spit up while you’re driving,” Rothstein said Friday.