He wasn’t driving drunk, he didn’t hit anyone, but he might still go to jail

Two drivers stopped at a red light one night in April 2007.

One driver was drunk — and not just a little drunk. Jonathan Hernandez was a convicted felon on probation, with enough alcohol in his blood to qualify for an extreme DUI.

The other driver, 19-year-old Jacob Ritter-Clark, had never gotten so much as a speeding ticket. He was sober.

I know you think you know where this is going. Two drivers collided, and their lives will never been the same. Blah blah blah.

But the two drivers didn't collide.

Both cars took off at the light, but Hernandez took off much faster. He gunned his Saturn and cut in front of Ritter-Clark — then lost control, flipping his car and pinning his passenger between the open sunroof and the bloody pavement.

Tests would later show Hernandez had been going at least 88 miles per hour.

But though Ritter-Clark's car never even touched the speeding drunk's, the cliché is still right on one level: In the wake of the accident, both drivers' lives have been irrevocably altered.

Jonathan Hernandez is in prison. No surprise there. But here is the unexpected part: Jacob Ritter-Clark might end up with an even longer sentence.

Ritter-Clark, the sober driver who managed to avoid crashing into the out-of-control drunk felon, pulled over immediately to call 911. Thanks to that act of kindness, he's now facing two felony counts — and a presumptive sentence of 7½ years in prison.

If you've learned about the courts by watching Law & Order, you might imagine that the wheels of justice move quickly. But this is true only in one sense. The initial review of a collision, or a simple assault, is often speedy as hell. Arrests are made. Charges are filed.

After that, the wheels can grind interminably. You won't plead guilty to a lesser charge? Prepare to attend pre-trial hearing after pre-trial hearing. Prepare for trial dates that come and go, with no trial in sight.

That's because, typically, no one wants a trial. Trials are expensive — and bring no guarantee of justice. If you're guilty of anything, you're much better off cutting a deal, getting some charges thrown out, and throwing yourself on the judge's mercy.

Judges know that, prosecutors know that, defense lawyers know that.

Jonathan Hernandez, the kid who caused the accident by driving drunk and speeding, surely knows that, too.

Hernandez, as they say, was "known" to the system — just 23, he'd already racked up five domestic violence convictions, one of them a felony that he was still on probation for. (Two years before the crash, records show that he hid in the bushes, ambushed an ex-girlfriend, and choked her in front of their 2-year-old son.) On probation, he'd managed to total a car by wrapping it around an electric pole, tested positive for cocaine use, and failed to show up for further testing — all without being sent to prison.

Like any good repeat offender, Hernandez knows the game. He took the deal on the table: five years in prison, plus three years probation.

It's Jacob Ritter-Clark who's holding things up. He keeps protesting that he's innocent.

The Mesa police decided that Jacob Ritter-Clark and Jonathan Hernandez were drag racing. That's illegal. Following Mesa PD's recommendation, the Maricopa County Attorney charged both with aggravated assault and endangerment.

Hernandez was guilty, clearly. But it's only after I read the police report that I realized how thin the evidence is against Ritter-Clark.

In fact, if Ritter-Clark hadn't thought of himself as an innocent bystander and immediately returned to the upside-down Saturn to call 911, I can't imagine he'd be facing charges today.

That night, Ritter-Clark and his passenger each told police the exact same story: Hernandez and his buddy pulled up next to them at the stoplight at Greenfield and Main and asked them to drag race. They refused, and the next thing they knew, the light turned green and Hernandez's Saturn cut in front of them — then skidded into the curb, flipped, and thudded to a halt only because it smashed into a Mexican restaurant.

Because Ritter-Clark's car never hit anything, because there were no skid marks or physical evidence left by his vehicle, there is no way that anyone can know how fast he was going that night. But two witnesses told police that Ritter-Clark was driving way over the speed limit — and the cops, after all, had heard from Ritter-Clark himself that he'd been challenged to a drag race.

So, when they saw that he'd bought fancy black rims for his Toyota Corolla, that he had put a Toyota sticker on its hood, and was tricking out the exhaust system, the cops must have thought they had a speed freak.

"The officer was talking about how he likes going fast on his 'crotch rocket,'" Ritter-Clark recalls. He says he asked whether Ritter-Clark had ever been to the raceway.