Originally Published: March 8, 2018 6:05 a.m.
It is legislation whose time has come, finally, for many people who die in crashes on our highways but the person at fault gets what amounts to a slap on the wrist.
The Arizona House approved a measure 54-5 on Tuesday, sending to the full Senate the effort to close a loophole that allows some people to escape with a small punishment even if they kill someone while driving.
Current law makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor for causing serious injury or death while violating any of a list of traffic laws, ranging from running a stop sign to failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. The sentence: up to 30 days in jail, according to Capitol Media Services. That is far less than the penalty, for example, for someone who litters.
Testifying in front of a Senate committee was Joanne Kieran, whose 31-year-old daughter, Peggy Hesselbacher, was killed in a 2016 traffic accident in Chandler that also seriously injured Kieran’s two grandchildren.
“The current laws do not give my daughter the justice she deserves,” Kieran said.
She is not alone.
Two cases in the Prescott area quickly come to mind, one in May 2003 north of Paulden on Highway 89, in which a young woman’s crash killed a Bullhead City couple; the other being the June 2011 crash on Highway 89 on the north end of Chino Valley, where a man’s truck crossed the center line, killing an elderly Chino Valley couple.
The first resulted in an initial punishment of probation; later, in 2004, she got six years in prison for doing drugs, violating probation. The second ended with a 10-month stay in the county jail and seven years of probation.
Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said it all points up “an old hole in our statutes.”
The legislation would double the period that a motorist loses driving privileges after an accident causing serious injury to 180 days, and a full year in cases of death. It also provides for the loss of a license for up to a decade in some instances of accidents resulting in death. And it removes the current $10,000 cap in state law for restitution to victims and their families.
The proposal bothers Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, who said it would be one thing if the enhanced penalties applied in cases where a prosecutor had to prove that a person was reckless, as opposed to a simple accident.
“The way that I read it, it just sounds like more of a strict liability crime where we’re saying ‘something happened’ and, so, throw the book at them,’’ said Mendez, who added that this legislation puts people behind bars for what may be just accidents and fits within the often-popular “tough on crime approach.”
The way we see it: that’s for the courts to decide. If it was an accident, so be it — go easier on the person; if it was alcohol or drug fueled — or some other factor — they should receive a punishment that fits the crime.
These are situations that prove our sentencing guidelines are not in line with the offenses or crimes that come before our judges.
Too punitive? Tell that to the mother who visits her daughter in the graveyard. There’s nothing harsher than that.