Lawmakers: Toughen penalties when drivers with suspended licenses cause injuries, deaths

Cronkite News Service

PHOENIX – Emotion vibrated in Wayne Schlect’s voice as he told lawmakers about the day nearly a year ago when he lost Lorrie, “my bride of 37 years,” and his 4-year-old granddaughter Caia.

While they were running errands in Tucson, an SUV ran a red light and struck a sedan carrying Lorrie and Caia and driven by Schlect’s daughter, Cassie Lea Roden.

Only Cassie Lea survived.

It turned out that the man who hit them was driving with a license that had been suspended for the seventh time months before. But the most authorities could charge him with was three misdemeanors carrying a maximum of 90 days in jail, and was sentenced to 75 days.

“That pain and torment has only been compounded by what happened – and more importantly did not happen – to the man who caused this,” Schlect said.

On Thursday, the House Transportation Committee unanimously endorsed a bill authored by Republican Reps. Vic Williams and Terri Proud of Tucson that would make it a felony when a driver with license that has been suspended or revoked for any reason causes an accident with serious injuries or fatalities.

At present, causing injury or death while driving with a suspended or revoked license is a misdemeanor unless the suspension is related to driving while intoxicated.

Williams said expanding the law would make people think twice before getting behind the wheel.

“This is now at least putting some teeth into people who continue to drive with a suspended license,” he said. “They should be more respectful of our laws and abide by our laws.”

HB 2523 would make driving with a suspended or revoked license and causing serious injury a Class Five felony carrying a sentence of between nine months and two years. If the accident kills someone, the charge would be a Class 4 felony carrying a sentence between 18 months and three years.

Kathleen Mayer, special assistant to Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, said the accident that killed Schlect’s wife and granddaughter highlighted the loophole because the driver’s license had been suspended for unpaid fines and missed court appearances.

“It’s one thing to talk about laws and the effect they have on community members and individuals in a background,” Mayer said. “It’s quite another to actually learn how gaps in the law affect people in a really tragic way.”

Schlect said he doesn’t want others to go through what he’s experienced.

“Seventy-five days for condemning our family to a lifetime of agony and pain is not appropriate accountability,” he said.