Rick and Rebecca Smith may be close to finding solace following the traffic death of their grown son.
When 21-year-old Ricky E. Smith was killed by a driver who ran a red light in April, his parents were shocked to learn the man responsible couldn’t be punished with time behind bars. Instead, a judge could only hand Angel Pantoja a fine of $2,300 and 800 hours of community service, while suspending his driving privileges for six months.
But the Smiths channeled their grief into lobbying lawmakers, and their efforts are bearing a bittersweet fruit. The Legislature is working a bill that would add prison time to the penalties levied against unlicensed drivers whose running of red lights and stop signs causes death or serious injury.
Pantoja carried a driver’s license issued in Sonora, Mexico.
“I think it’s great,” Rebecca Smith said. “That’s what we wanted, so everything’s coming out really good.”
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Andy Biggs, a Republican from the Smiths’ hometown of Gilbert. As a member of the House Transportation Committee, Biggs has steered HB2208 through that chamber, where it passed 52-3.
“We have broad-based bipartisan support for this,” Biggs said.
The Senate is considering the measure now.
The bill, if enacted, would create a vehicular homicide law, a Class 4 felony punishable by up to three years in prison on a first offense. For crashes causing serious injury, the crime would be vehicular assault and would carry a maximum of 2 1 /2 years imprisonment. Biggs said he deliberately made the latter a Class 5 felony so it couldn’t be plea-bargained to a misdemeanor.
“If you have no license, or if it’s suspended or fraudulent, then you shouldn’t be on the road,” Biggs said. “And if you cause a fatality, then that’s a criminal offense.”
Other states have vehicular manslaughter laws that can give jail time to drivers who cause fatalities out of simple, rather than criminal, negligence. But Biggs said that wasn’t his goal.
“This is going to close the gap on a lot of issues we’re having,” Biggs said.
The Smiths believe such a law is necessary to “make people wake up” to the dangers of bad driving.
“We think about (Ricky) when we wake up, we think about him when we go to bed,” Smith said. “It never ends. Time won’t heal this. “If it doesn’t happen to (other drivers) they don’t quite understand.”