Legislature(2003 - 2004)
02/18/2003 01:43 PM TRA
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 53-REVOKE DRIVER'S LIC. FOR FATAL ACCIDENT SENATOR SCOTT OGAN, sponsor of SB 53, explained he introduced similar legislation about four years ago. Former Governor Knowles introduced the same legislation two years ago, which died in the last moments of the legislature last year so he is reintroducing the measure. He explained: What motivated me to do this was literally having to take my knife and dig the dirt out from underneath my fingernails from burying a couple of my friends' kids. And two kids were killed in the same car wreck. They were killed by a young man who was basically charged with a traffic violation of speeding. The young man received a very light sentence, just a few points off his drivers license and a few hundred dollar fine and some community service. And it was the maximum that the judge could give and the judge actually apologized to the parents for not being able to do more. Since then he was involved in another vehicle accident that, I'm not sure of the exact tickets of that accident, but I've been told that individual was involved in an accident that killed two more kids and had he lost a license maybe that might not have happened. When we first introduced the bill, six years ago I think it was, we had one woman that testified that a person ran a red light in Anchorage, a woman ran a red light and killed her daughter, she got a $50 fine. And I think the families of these victims of accidents feel that justice is not being served. There's certainly civil recourse that they could take to, the one family that lost the two boys, both families decided not to litigate in civil court. They just felt it wasn't something they wanted to do but they would have liked to have had the young man held accountable. There was another accident recently, earlier this winter, where two people died, and a young gal was driving, another young person.... Situations where there is alcohol involved or something like that they can be charged with manslaughter or face some criminal charges. Right now the way our law is written, you get a traffic ticket you get a slap on the wrist and your on to, back to your bad driving habits. So anyway, this bill attempts to clarify that. There are a lot of technical issues here, legal technical issues, I think Annie Carpeneti is here to answer questions if anybody has some on those. But basically this is a policy change that the Alaska Legislature is saying: if you're not paying attention, you're talking on your cell phone, you run a red light, you run a stop sign, you speed, you kill somebody, you know it's going to be a little bit more than just a traffic ticket. I think the value of human life is worth more than a traffic ticket in those cases. MS. NANCY CAMPBELL informed the committee her son was killed in the accident Senator Ogan spoke about. A number of lawyers were involved because six teenagers were in the car. Her lawyer tried to pursue a misdemeanor conviction but Alaska laws are written with no ramifications for this type of accident because the driver was not on drugs or alcohol. The case went to traffic court and the judge apologized and said his hands were tied. Witnesses to the accident said the young man was speeding, but because it was viewed through a rearview mirror the testimony could not be considered. This man also almost ran into a couple and they came to traffic court but were not allowed to testify because of the way the laws are written. The young man was given 300 hours of community service. Two months later, that young man was involved in another accident in which two more teenagers were killed. She said to her knowledge this young man is still driving. MS. CAMPBELL and her husband support SB 53 and feel the legislation is appropriate. They have lobbied to change the law in Alaska since 1994. The local newspaper in Eureka, California reported a non-fatal accident involving two teenagers. One young man pulled up next to another and shot him in the face with a squirt gun. The accident that followed involved injury but was not fatal, however the driver's license was immediately revoked and a fine was imposed by the State of California. This shows that the problem is the way Alaska laws are written. CHAIR COWDERY how Ms. Campbell would place the responsibility if a person was driving down the road in a residential area at 25 miles per hour and hit and killed a child who darted out from a driveway on a tricycle. MS. CAMPBELL said that is a different situation because the child ran out into the road and the driver didn't see the child coming. TAPE 03-03, SIDE A 3:18 p.m. SENATOR OGAN explained if the person in Chair Cowdery's scenario didn't violate any traffic laws he or she would not be charged. That type of case is a terrible thing but it is an accident and nobody is really at fault. SENATOR LINCOLN said she thought SB 53 was a fine bill. She asked if the bill covers 4-wheelers, 3-wheelers and snow machines. She asked how a vehicle is defined. SENATOR OGAN said he would like Annie Carpeneti to back him up on the question but a traffic law must be violated. Operating a 4-wheeler on a highway would be a violation of a traffic law. SENATOR LINCOLN said she was thinking of a situation where somebody in a village, driving erratically with a 4-wheeler and not paying attention, caused a fatal accident. She asked if this bill addresses that type of situation. MS. ANNE CARPENETI, Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, Department of Law, testified the department had worked with Senator Ogan on SB 53. She said in answer to Senator Lincoln's question it would depend on the circumstances but it could very well apply. The bill is limited; it requires a citation for a traffic violation and a conviction on the citation. Then it requires the judge to find by clear and convincing evidence that the traffic violation was a significant cause of the accident that killed a person. The scenario raised by Chair Cowdery would not apply at all. SENATOR LINCOLN presented an example that had occurred a year earlier. A young man was working on a new snow machine and could not get it going. He put a tool on the accelerator and the snow machine took off and ran over and killed an individual. She asked if the legislation would apply in that case. MS. CARPENETI asked if he was cited for a traffic violation. She said sometimes people get killed in accidents and it is really nobody's fault. She said SB 53 addresses incidences where a person hasn't acted in a criminally negligent manner but has violated a traffic law. Senator Lincoln's example would depend on the circumstances in the situation: where the snow machine was, whether it was on a vehicular way, or whether the young man was cited for some sort of traffic violation. She said she would need more information. SENATOR THERRIAULT said Ms. Carpeneti worked with the Senate Judiciary Committee last year on changes to this legislation. He had reviewed the minutes from last year and had a copy of that bill. He noted Senator Ogan had said his starting point was the last version of the bill and it appears to be except for the omission of an additional section in last year's bill that dealt with the definition of traffic laws. MS. CARPENETI pointed out the definition on page 3, line 7 was in the prior iterations of the bill. SENATOR THERRIAULT said she was correct. The form of the bill is just a little bit different. SENATOR THERRIAULT referred to scenarios given by Chair Cowdery that Ms. Carpeneti had said did not apply. The Judiciary Committee discussed another scenario last year. A mother picks up her two children, driving down the road hits an icy spot, hits a telephone pole, kills one of the children. There was some testimony last year that the trooper responding to the accident scene is going to cite a cause for the accident, driving too fast for the conditions. Now is that mother then going to be subject to losing her license where she's already lost her child? MS. CARPENETI answered it would depend. If the mother was cited for driving too fast for the conditions and the judge concluded that her behavior was a significant contributing factor to the death, then losing her license is a possibility. SENATOR THERRIAULT asked if such a situation would provide for a lot of prosecutorial discretion. MS. CARPENETI said yes. The person has to be convicted of the citation beyond a reasonable doubt. A person has a right to court appointed counsel and a jury trial for the citation itself and then the judge would have to be convinced by clear and convincing evidence that the bad driving was a significant contributing factor to the death. There are several steps along the way that have to be met before the license would be revoked and it would be for the judge to determine. She thought that was why the Senate Judiciary Committee added the clear and convincing evidence standard and that it would be a significant factor in causing the death. MS. CARPENETI explained beyond a reasonable doubt is a higher standard. Clear and convincing is between preponderance of the evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt but it is a high standard. SENATOR OLSON said last year's bill included the reasonable doubt standard; the standard in this bill has been changed to clear and convincing evidence. He asked her why that change was made. MS. CARPENETI said she believes the citation has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt but said she could be mistaken and would check. The citation must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and, after the person is convicted of the traffic violation, the court must find by clear and convincing evidence that the bad driving was the significant factor in causing the death. SENATOR OLSON stated: As you look at this transgressing driver that was out there causing all this mayhem and certainly the fatalities we certainly empathize with the families that were affected. And I think, with all due respect Senator Ogan, your words as I remember them on the floor were that 'You cannot legislate common sense.' He asked if the driver that caused the two accidents had a driver's license. SENATOR OGAN said he did not recall making that statement and added, "But you probably can't legislate common sense, but you can punish bad judgment. And, you know we legislate morality all the time. That's the most common thing we do." He stated as an example that when someone three years older has sexual relations with a child who is 15 years and 364 days old, that is child molestation but, the next day, when the child turns 16, it is not. That is a moral judgment call. He applauded the Campbells for not taking the driver to civil court, but they felt justice was not served. This legislation would provide a sense of justice. The Campbell's son and their friend's son died and, because there was nothing on the books the judge could use, a subsequent accident occurred and two other children died. This young man did not learn his lesson the first time so there has to be some consequences for bad judgment. SENATOR OLSON said his heart goes out to the people that suffered through the tragedy. SENATOR OLSON referred to case 1 from the Actual Cases Supporting SB 53 in which a man driving along Glenn Highway into Anchorage one summer afternoon fell asleep at the wheel and violated a traffic regulation by driving onto the bike path. His car struck and killed a woman riding her bicycle. Senator Olson said a fair number of the people even within this room have at sometime fallen asleep in undue circumstances. He said to put them in the same category as the driver talked about earlier is somewhat unfair. SENATOR OGAN responded: With all due respect, through the chair, Senator Olson, I guess you would say that it wouldn't be fair for those people to sue that person. They would be held liable in civil court as well.... You know life isn't fair. We make judgment calls all the time and yea, I've fallen asleep, or you know caught myself falling asleep at the wheel before and I've been in a car with somebody that falls asleep with their eyes open. He said he did not think it was unreasonable to have some ramifications. He said he told his kids a car is a 4 thousand pound missile and do not mess around, driving is life and death stuff. Unfortunate things happen to good people, some good people make some bad judgments that kill people, and those people cannot be brought back. He asked if people should get off with a $50 fine for running a red light. He did not think so. MS. CARPENETI said, in further response to Senator Therriault, that in last year's bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave the court discretion to suspend the license for up to three years under these limited circumstances. Up to that point, suspension was mandatory for one year. SENATOR THERRIAULT asked if the current bill gives the court that discretion. MS. CARPENETI answered it does. SENATOR THERRIAULT said he remembered the discussion last year. That discretion was added to recognize the person who is "hot- rodding" and acting egregiously. SENATOR THERRIAULT recounted a discussion last year on the issue of license revocation. He noted that the police blotter in any paper contains DWIs (driving while intoxicated) that involve people driving with revoked licenses. He said he did not know if the laws really impact people's behavior because people drive with suspended licenses anyway. A lot of people drive to and from work without a license. People have to drive in this state with the extreme temperatures and distances and no mass transit. He asked if Senator Ogan had given thought to what the penalty is when people are caught driving with a revoked driver's license. He asked what the impact would be on the Department of Law and the public defenders. SENATOR OGAN said the bill gives the judge discretion. He hoped, in the case Senator Olson mentioned where the woman hit a patch of ice and killed a child, the judge would take that into consideration. The bill allows for a limited amount of discretion so that an offender can go to work or take care of someone with a medical condition or those kinds of things. He said a man in his neighborhood got in an accident without insurance and lost his license. He gives this neighbor a ride to town, as the closest store is 12 miles away. SENATOR THERRIAULT said he wanted to bring the committee's attention to the fact that the bill has picked up very modest and indeterminate fiscal notes. SENATOR THERRIAULT moved SB 53 from committee with individual recommendations and the four attached fiscal notes. Without objection, the motion carried.