Monday, May 02, 2016

Reiboldt describes legislation based on Neosho youth's death

(From Sen. Bill Reiboldt, R-Seneca)

On the morning of September 12, 2015, the Neosho community was saddened to hear of the tragic accident that claimed the life of a young 19-year-old man. The news of the death of Matthew Stevens, a 2015 NHS graduate, was even more difficult to accept when whoever hit him with their vehicle apparently left the scene of the accident, leaving Matthew’s body on the roadway. Police reports indicate that Matthew was killed instantly. For his family, many questions were left unanswered. (It is important to note that later the driver did come forward and the case today is in the courts.)

It was late October when the news media and Matthew’s mother, Stacy Stevens, contacted my office about the situation. At that time I began to look into the laws concerning hit and run and leaving the scene of an accident and what might be done to strengthen the existing laws. After many weeks of visiting with prosecutors, lawyers, judges, and law enforcement personnel, I filed House Bill 2551, a measure that would give prosecutors and judges a stronger tool with which to work. Currently, leaving the scene of an accident is punishable as a Class E felony that carries a fine of $5,000 and up to four years in prison. If HB 2551 becomes law, it would make such an offense a Class D felony in 2016 and would change it to a Class C felony on January 1, 2017, when Missouri’s new criminal code takes effect.

It was on April 13 in Jefferson City that a public hearing was held before the House Committee on Civil and Criminal Proceedings and at which Stacy Stevens gave an account of the events surrounding the death of her son Matthew. (It was also later that afternoon when Ms. Stevens was in my office that she pulled out Matthew’s graduation certificate from the House and the Senate. It really hit home when I saw both Senator Ron Richard’s and my signatures on it.)

In addition to Ms. Steven’s testimony, several others who came in support of her were also given the opportunity to speak to the committee. Ironically, the day of the hearing I received a call from a St. Louis gentleman who was following my bill. He told me the previous night two pedestrians had been hit and killed in a crosswalk there by a drunk driver. Since then I have received numerous other calls and emails from around the state in regard to this issue. To my shock, I discovered this was a frequent occurrence.

The following are brief excerpts from some of the testimonies given at the hearing on April 13:

In 2011, Terry’s brother, Mike, was 42 years old and the father of four children when he was killed by a hit and run driver. The driver’s teenage daughter was in the car with him and was instructed to keep quiet about the accident. Though he dismantled and burned the car to destroy any evidence of the event, the driver was found out. He only did jail time because this wasn’t his first hit and run incident. One year in jail was all he served for taking the life of an innocent victim.

In 2012, Jeanne’s son, James, was headed to work in Vernon County but never made it. He died instantly when he was run down by a truck going in excess of 85 mph. Even though the driver was interviewed and failed a polygraph several times, no charges were ever brought against him. Justice is still waiting to be served.

Georgie’s daughter, 22-year-old Amber, was struck and killed by a hit and run driver two blocks from Busch Stadium by a car speeding in excess of 70 mph in downtown St. Louis. The driver was never found.

Why has this horrible crime become an ever-increasing problem in our state? Though it is generally thought that the people responsible for these tragedies did not intentionally set out to do harm, nevertheless, it happened. Speculation was put forth during testimony as to what caused the accidents and why the drivers may have chosen to leave the scenes. It includes…

* going too fast;

* having something to hide, such as drugs or alcohol;

* texting while driving, or engaging in other activities that took drivers’ attention away from their driving;

* fear of punishment.

House Bill 2551 has been amended to House Bill 1733, and with the help of Senator Ron Richard and Lee’s Summit Senator Will Kraus, it cleared the Senate and will be third read in the House this week. Expectations are that it will pass and then be sent on to Governor Jay Nixon for his approval.

It is indeed tragic that we in Missouri are dealing with accidents such as have been mentioned, but HB 1733 is an effort to help make drivers take their driving responsibility much more seriously. Every driver needs to be cautious and aware of what he or she is doing while behind the wheel of a car and to realize that vehicles have the potential to become deadly weapons if they are not careful and alert to individuals and situations around them. We want no more Matthews, Mikes, Jameses and Ambers to pay the price for driver inattention or driver carelessness before this horrendous problem ceases.

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