Repeat drunk driver gets 18 months for Gaithersburg, Md., crash injuring judge

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By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A drunk driver was sentenced to 18 months in jail Tuesday for a crash in Gaithersburg that injured a retired judge who, 11 years earlier in a different drunken-driving case, had spared the man jail time.

Rene Fernandez, 45, will serve his time at the Montgomery County jail and likely be released in 13 to 15 months, prosecutors said.

Last year, while driving with a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit at 3 in the afternoon, the Gaithersburg man swerved into oncoming traffic and plowed his Chevy Tahoe into a Honda Accord carrying Edwin and Ellen Collier.

The case is filled with tragedy and irony.

The former was on display Tuesday, during a hearing in which one of the Colliers' sons, John, spoke at length about how the wreck has turned his parents' life upside down. His mother, who was 81 at the time of the crash, almost died.

And while his father had retired as a full-time member of the bench, he regularly returned to handle dockets, his son pointed out.

"He had worked right up until the accident," Collier said in court, adding that his father would be working today had it not been for the wreck.

His father, 85 when the crash occurred on Aug. 21, 2009, suffered fractured ribs and a broken leg. He uses a cane, and every step is painful, Collier said.

His mother, who enjoyed walking so much that she would sometimes walk 1 1/2 miles to a restaurant to meet her friends (who would drive to the restaurant), now uses a walker. When she goes to the grocery store, Edwin Collier goes in to get the items. "Mom doesn't even get out of the car," John Collier said.

Under an April agreement, Fernandez had pleaded guilty to one count of causing a life-threatening injury while intoxicated. Prosecutors said the maximum sentence was three years' imprisonment.

Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge John W. Debelius III sentenced Fernandez to three years but suspended half of it. That means he will serve his time locally instead of in a state prison, prosecutors said. But because of the way the state parole system works, Fernandez might have a longer stay behind bars than if he had been given three years in the state system.

Fernandez was a lawful permanent resident at the time of the wreck, according to his attorney. The conviction might make him eligible for deportation, but that will be handled in later proceedings.

In 1998, Fernandez appeared before two Montgomery judges on separate drunken-driving charges. He pleaded guilty in both cases. The first judge sentenced him to probation before judgment, in which the matter is not treated as a conviction. The second judge, Collier, sentenced Fernandez to 60 days in jail but suspended the term.

Fernandez's attorney, John Severt, said in court that his client is an alcoholic who no longer drinks, is committed to staying sober and is a hardworking member of the community.

Fernandez spoke briefly, saying that the crash has been a nightmare and that he is very sorry for the Colliers.

"Since then, I asked the Lord to help this beautiful family," he said. "And I hope that it never happens to anybody. That was not my intention."

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