February 19, 2010

Senate OKs bill recognizing fetus as person in drunken driving cases

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

When Wayne County resident Danielle Brookshire got in her car to run an errand, little did she know how the short trip would change her life.

Brookshire was hit by a drunk driver, resulting in the death of her unborn child. As if the tragedy could be any worse, the driver at fault received only a traffic ticket.

When Brookshire met with her state senator, Allen Paul, R-Richmond, and shared her story about the 2007 car crash, Sen. Paul was convinced that changes should be made in current state law.

Sen. Paul worked with Brookshire and Wayne County Prosecutor Michael Shipman on crafting the language of Senate Bill 71, and named the proposed legislation “Drew’s Bill” after the unborn child who died.

Drew’s Bill, which passed the Senate by a 50-0 vote, adds termination of pregnancy to the current reckless homicide law, a Class C felony. This law would not apply to an abortion as medically performed in compliance with Indiana law.

Glenn Tebbe, Indiana Catholic Conference executive director, said that, while he did not testify during the Senate hearing of the bill, the Church is supportive of the legislation because of its premise of recognizing unborn babies.

Sen. Paul noted the tragic events that led to the proposed legislation.

“Danielle was in the final trimester of her pregnancy when she was struck by a drunken driver,” Sen. Paul said. “While the driver walked away with only a traffic ticket, Danielle tragically lost her unborn child and sadly is unable to become pregnant again.”

Currently, Indiana law states that a drunken driver who fatally injures another person can be charged with a Class C felony, a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison. The charge becomes a Class B felony if the driver has prior convictions, and could face six to 20 years in prison.

Senate Bill 71, as amended, would make the killing of a fetus as a result of operating a vehicle while intoxicated a Class D felony—a crime punishable by up to six months in prison.

Sen. Paul said Indiana would join several other states where penalties against drunken drivers increase if they cause crashes resulting in the termination of pregnancies. According to data compiled by National Right to Life, the other states that have either reckless or vehicular homicide laws recognizing unborn babies include: Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin.

Last year, the Indiana General Assembly increased penalties for feticide by giving further recognition to the unborn. The feticide legislation of 2009 was prompted by a tragedy involving a pregnant bank teller who was shot during a robbery. The bank teller survived, but her unborn twins died.

Under the feticide law, if a person kills an unborn baby while committing or attempting to commit murder or another crime also commits feticide. A person found guilty of causing the death of a child in utero may be sentenced to an additional term of imprisonment of six to 20 years.

In criminal actions, the state prosecutes on behalf of the victim for crimes committed. The law increased penalties for the crime of feticide from a Class C to a Class B felony.

Sen. Paul said he applauded the bipartisan effort shown by Senate lawmakers to pass the legislation.

“Both sides of the aisle supported this from the beginning, and I am excited to see it move over to the House,” Sen. Paul said. “Also, I am pleased Senate lawmakers allowed the bill to stay true to its intended purpose—to increase penalties against drunken drivers and prevent another family from going through the same horrible situation [that] Danielle Brookshire and her family went through.

“While the accident was tragic and [is] a situation no family should go through, Drew’s memory will live on through this bill and will help make sure this type of reckless act does not continue to go unpunished,” Sen. Paul said. “It’s a fitting tribute to Danielle’s lost son.”

Rep. Phil Pflum, D-Milton, is the House sponsor of the bill. The bill has been assigned to the House Courts and Criminal Codes Committee, and awaits a hearing. Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, chairs the committee.

“Rep. Pierce has not committed to giving the bill a hearing,” Tebbe said.

Additionally, concerns about the bill moving forward are mounting as the Senate and House leadership announced on Feb. 5 their goal of shortening an already short session.

“Lawmakers are planning to complete committee hearings by Feb. 19,” Tebbe said. “It is going to really crunch a lot of legislative business into a very short time, and I suspect some important issues, such as the Marriage Amendment, may not move forward as a result.”

Once the regular committee process is completed, bills which have been amended in the second chamber must go back to the original chamber for a concurrence vote or a vote of approval. Bills which do not get a concurrence vote can move to a process called “conference committee.”

The Indiana General Assembly must adjourn by March 14, but could end as early as March 5.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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