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Maybe you’ve read about the California State Assemblywoman who was arrested recently for felony grand theft after security guards caught the lawmaker outside a San Francisco Neiman Marcus store with $2,500 worth of clothing she didn’t pay for.

The lawmaker’s excuse is that she was so distracted by talking on her cell phone that she forgot she needed to stop and pay for the clothing at any of the several cash registers she passed before she exited the store. According to the assemblywoman’s aide, it was just “a mistake and misunderstanding.”

In the overall scheme of Wall Street corruption and fraud, one lawmaker being caught stealing $2,500 worth of Neiman Marcus clothing may not be earth shattering, but her excuse is a new venture into not guilty by reason of DWG — Distracted While Gabbing, or perhaps it should be DUIT — Distracted Under the Influence of Technology.

The lawmaker — Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi from Castro Valley, who also serves as chair of the Assembly Business, Professions and Consumer Protection Committee — deserves a fair hearing and the chance to explain her DWG defense, certainly. If she goes to trial — and she should — I hope the jury is appropriately skeptical as it reviews the video tape of Hayashi entering the store with two shopping bags, selecting three new items of Neiman Marcus clothing, stuffing them into a bag, and walking out of the store, passing by multiple cash registers as she gabs away on her cell phone.

According to her version of what happened, she was so distracted by gabbing, she just plumb forgot the three pricey items of clothing weighing down her bag as she marched out of the store encumbered by cell phone.

Is it possible it happened as she said, so engrossed in her conversation she forgot where she was or what she was doing or why she was in the store in the first place? I suppose. But I doubt this DWG defense would be taken seriously if used by the average person, someone not famous or elected to public office.

Pleading not guilty by reason of DWG or DUIT is starting to remind me of where the nation was almost 30 years ago with drunk driving. Prior to the early 1980s, drivers who injured or killed other drivers or pedestrians were seldom charged with manslaughter, and our judicial system treated it as an accident with the intoxicated driver not responsible that he or she was drunk. The public’s perception seemed to be, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

It took the resolve, passion and determination of a handful of people to change that perception that injuring or taking the lives of others while driving drunk was not an unavoidable accident. Some readers may remember the story of the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Candy Lightner, the mother of 13-year-old twin daughters, one of whom was killed by a drunk driver while walking to a church carnival in the middle of the day in the quiet Sacramento-area suburb of Fair Oaks in 1980.

The driver was speeding and driving without a license after having been previously arrested numerous times for drunk driving. After hitting and killing Lightner’s daughter, Cari, throwing her body 125 feet from the point of impact, the intoxicated driver drove off, adding hit and run to his crimes. A police officer’s comment to Lightner that the driver would not likely face charges for her daughter’s death because it was an accident propelled Lightner to band together with other parents of children killed by drunk drivers and start the organization that changed the public’s implicit tolerance for drunk driving.

The excuse of being distracted by cell phones or Blackberries or iPads or whatever is starting to sound like the old excuse of driving under the influence of mind-altering substances — it wasn’t intentional.

I heard a 30-second public service announcement on the radio the other day that indicates there’s a similar movement underway to change the public’s tolerance of driving while impaired by some gadget or another that indisputably diverts the driver’s attention. We know, without a doubt, that it can take only a moment’s unnecessary distraction to cause an accident resulting in injury or death. It is tragic, but it is avoidable. It isn’t intentional, but it is negligent.

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