PENFIELD, N.Y. (WROC) — An 11th grade student at Penfield High School was pronounced dead Sunday after being struck by a vehicle while crossing Chestnut Street with his father just after 12 a.m. Saturday.
The student, identified as 16-year-old Matthew Bittner was 16-years-old, succumbed to his injuries Sunday morning, Rochester police officials said.
Rochester police officials say the 39-year-old driver of the vehicle remained at the scene and cooperated with the investigation. They say the driver said he did not see Bittner crossing the road due to heavy rainfall, and swerved in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid him.
The driver was ultimately charged with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, and DWAI (marijuana).
Attorney Peter Pullano with Tulley Rinckey says DWAI’s are not as common as DWI’s. But he’s predicting that will change, now that marijuana is legal in the state.
“We’re going to see more of them now that marijuana is legal. They’ve always been there, they’re not as common place as DWI of course,” he said.
Rochester Police say the recent legalization is a concern for them. A spokesperson for the department tells News 8 it requires additional training to properly detect this impairment; the highest level requiring several years of experience.
The department says in general, people sometimes rationalize their actions by using the argument, “Well, I’m not drunk.” But according to the law — DWIs and DWAI’s are the same level of offense.
“It’s Class A misdemeanor, it could involve a year in jail, it could involve three years probation,” said Pullano.
Pullano says for this case, prosecution will have to prove whether impairment directly caused the fatality.
“Just because a person is impaired and there is a fatality, doesn’t necessarily mean the person is guilty of a homicide, manslaughter, even murder arguably, that’s a question has to be fleshed out by a jury. Did the impairment cause the death or were there other factors?”
Pullano says there’s not a lot we can infer from the first charge: why the driver was allegedly operating an unlicensed vehicle, and why it’s considered aggravated, remains unknown
The driver was issued an appearance ticket to appear in Rochester City Court at a later date.
Officials say the case is now being investigated by the Major crimes Unit, who will work in concert with the Monroe County District Attorney’s office to determine if any additional charges are applicable.
Penfield High School will have mental health members join all of Matthew’s classes Monday to support students and teachers. Day-long seminars will also take place tomorrow as counselors will take the opportunity to process the tragedy in smaller groups with students.
LeAnna Watt, Penfield High School Principal, released a statement Sunday that in part said:
“We know that tragic news such as this is hard to make sense of; it can be shocking, triggering and can certainly hit hard for those who knew him well. It will be important for us to pause, acknowledge this loss to our community and to be responsive to what our staff and students need; we trust that our teachers will know when and how to return to normal (which is also okay).”
“Please take good care and be safe with your families tonight; keep Matthew and his family in your thoughts and prayers.”
Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.