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8:49 PM Thu, Nov. 15th

Arizona lawmakers want to close traffic-accident loophole

Emergency workers examine the scene of a two-vehicle accident on Highway 89 north of the Prescott airport Nov. 11, 2009. (Courier, File)

Emergency workers examine the scene of a two-vehicle accident on Highway 89 north of the Prescott airport Nov. 11, 2009. (Courier, File)

PHOENIX — State lawmakers are moving to close what appears to be a loophole that allows some people to escape with what amounts to a legal slap on the wrist 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. That’s punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

What makes that alarming, according to Joanne Kieran, is that the penalty is harsher for someone who litters.

Kieran’s views were front and center Tuesday as she detailed for members of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Technology the 2016 traffic accident in Chandler that claimed the life of her 31-year-old daughter, Peggy Hesselbacher, and seriously injured Kieran’s two grandchildren who were with their mother.

People can be charged with felonies in some cases where there is an accident causing injury or death when a driver’s license has been revoked. But Kieran told lawmakers that, in this incident, the fact that the driver was operating on a suspended license and driving without the proper insurance did not trigger those felony penalties.

“The current laws does not give my daughter the justice she deserves,’’ Kieran said.

According to Chandler police, the driver, while on a suspended license, ran a red light, killing Hesselbacher. Her 3-year-old son suffered a broken arm, broken hips and lacerations; her year-old daughter initially was in a coma.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery rebuffed the family’s bid to seek a felony conviction, concluding that the facts of the situation -- driving on a license that had been suspended for failing to have auto insurance -- did not fit within the existing definition of the law. The motorist was not drunk and did not leave the scene of the accident.

That left only that Class 3 misdemeanor.

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said the facts of this situation point up “an old hole in our statutes.’’

But the legislation, which cleared the committee on a 6-1 vote, would do more than close that peculiar loophole.

First, it would double the period that a motorist loses driving privileges following 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 whole proposal bothered Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe.

He 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,’’ Mendez said. But Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, who is sponsoring the legislation, called that verbiage unnecessary.

“I consider somebody driving illegally on a suspended license and then also hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk to be acting recklessly,’’ she said.

Mendez was not convinced to support the measure, and not just over the failure to include the word “reckless’’ in the bill.

He said this legislation puts behind bars for what may be just accidents certainly fits within the often-popular “tough on crime approach.’’

“It sounds great in an election year,’’ Mendez said. “But this is a broad brush approach to crime and it’s going to have diminishing returns.’’

Tuesday’s vote sends the measure, which already has been approved by the House on a 54-5 vote, to the full Senate.