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Arizona Bill Would Toughen Laws For Drivers In Fatal Accidents

State lawmakers are moving to close a loophole that allows some people to escape serious punishment when they cause a serious car crash.

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.

It's unjust to Jody Kieran who detailed for members of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Technology on Tuesday the 2016 traffic accident in Chandler that claimed the life of her 31-year-old daughter, Pamela Hesselbacher, and seriously injured Kieran's two grandchildren.

Although the driver's license had not been revoked, Kieran told lawmakers the driver was operating on a suspended license and driving without the proper insurance.

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

A Chandler police report shows the driver ran a red light. But, because he was not drunk and did not leave the scene of the accident, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery could not pursue felony charges under the existing definition of the law.

House Bill 2522, 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. And, it also provides for the loss of a license for up to a decade in some instances of accidents resulting in death. Plus, it removes the current $10,000 cap in state law for restitution to victims and their families.

Although all but one member on the committee approved the bill, Senator Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, questioned the enhanced penalties in cases of a simple accident versus cases of recklessness.

"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.

In response, Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, who is sponsoring the legislation, commented, "I consider somebody driving illegally on a suspended license and then also hitting a pedestrian in a crosswalk to be acting recklessly."

Mendez wondered aloud if the legislation to put people behind bars is a politically -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.''

The bill already has been approved by the House on a 54-5 vote, and is working its way through the full Senate.