Coral Gables

Case dropped against ex-cop accused in Coral Gables traffic death

Peter Muñoz
Peter Muñoz Miami Herald File

Despite a blood test showing that he was drunk by nearly triple the legal limit when he killed a woman in Coral Gables with his car, ex-cop Peter Muñoz is a free man.

Miami-Dade prosecutors on Wednesday dropped the case against the former Coral Springs police officer in the July 2011 death of 23-year-old paralegal Jennifer Gutierrez.

The decision came more than one year after a Miami-Dade judge, based on legal technicalities, threw out crucial blood evidence that showed Muñoz was drunk, forcing prosecutors to drop a DUI manslaughter count.

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy’s decision, combined with a recent appeals court decision in a similar car-crash death, essentially doomed the prosecution. Unable to prove Muñoz was sufficiently “reckless” in speeding that morning, the state on Wednesday dropped the remaining vehicular manslaughter charge.

“My client is certainly relieved and grateful that the lengthy and difficult litigation that was necessary to obtain this result is finally over,” said Muñoz’s defense lawyer, Alan Ross.

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Miami’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving said: “Our heart breaks for the family and friends of Jenny Gutierrez.”

“Today, justice was denied to a family who just wanted the impaired driver to take responsibility,” said MADD’s Sally Matson.

Back in July 2011, Muñoz was driving his Volkswagen south on LeJeune Road, just after 4 a.m. He plowed into Gutierrez, driving a BMW, who had entered the intersection while trying to make a left from Aledo Avenue north onto LeJeune.

Gutierrez, a Miami-Dade college student and young mother, was rushed to Ryder Trauma Center and died less than two hours later.

Muñoz, 27, was hospitalized. A toxicology report showed he had a blood-alcohol level of .229, nearly triple the legal limit. Gutierrez, who was driving on a suspended license at the time, also had evidence of Xanax and cocaine in her system.

Coral Springs police fired Muñoz soon after the crash.

Several months after he was charged, his defense attorneys attacked the validity of the search warrant, executed by rookie Coral Gables traffic homicide investigator Jesus Rodriguez, for blood vials at the hospital.

At a pivotal hearing in September 2012, Rodriguez gave damaging testimony for his own investigation, including that “he did not think he had probable cause for the warrant when he submitted it” to a judge, according to a final memo on the case released Wednesday.

Ultimately, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy agreed to throw out the blood evidence.

The reasons: He agreed with the defense that the detective, in a search warrant, should have included more detailed information about a six- to eight-foot hedge that might have obstructed the sight of the woman pulling into the intersection.

The judge also agreed that the warrant should have included the fact that “the officer who was the first to arrive on the scene stated he did not detect any signs of impairment,” the memo said.

Prosecutors had no choice but to drop the DUI manslaughter charge. The state attorney’s office decided not to appeal the case because Rodriguez’s testimony was so shaky.

Then earlier this year, Muñoz’s lawyer asked the judge to dismiss the final charge, saying his speed was no more than 16 miles per hour over the 40 mph speed limit.

The final nail in the coffin of the case came last month when the Third District Court of Appeal threw out a vehicular manslaughter conviction in the case against a man named Luis Luzardo.

In that case, Luzardo had been speeding in daylight on Tamiami Trail when a carload of tourists tried to make a left turn into an amusement park. He tried to veer but still hit the car, killing one British woman.

Judges said that Luzardo might have been negligent or careless but that his speeding did not reach the proper “level of recklessness.”

In Muñoz’s case, with the evidence of drunken driving, the facts of both traffic deaths were too similar, Miami-Dade prosecutor Alejandra Lopez wrote in her final report.

“The evidence in this case is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that [Muñoz’s] conduct rose to the ‘reckless conduct’ likely to cause death of, or serious bodily harm to another,” she wrote.