published Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Tennessee lawmakers, local parents seek tougher DUI punishments

NASHVILLE — Local lawmakers and Bradley County families of victims on Monday renewed their push for legislation boosting penalties for some categories of drunken drivers involved in fatal crashes.

Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and the families are hoping to persuade Gov. Bill Haslam and legislative colleagues to find money in a tight budget to fund their proposed "Dustin's Law."

The bill stalled last year over funding -- about $445,000. The bill is named in memory of 24-year-old Dustin Ledford of Bradley County. He was killed on July 10, 2010, when a woman high on meth and nearly twice the legal blood alcohol limit of .08 slammed into his car.

Joining Watson and Gardenhire at a state Capitol news conference were Kim and Danny Ledford, parents of Dustin Ledford.

"I can't help but think [Dustin] would be proud" to have the bill named after him, his mother said. "I hope it becomes law."

The measure redefines aggravated vehicular homicide, a Class A felony, to include vehicular homicide when the driver has a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .20 or has a BAC of .08 and methamphetamine in their system.

Currently, a conviction of aggravated vehicular homicide is possible if the defendant commits vehicular homicide and has two or more previous convictions for DUI, vehicular assault, or any combination of the two. It also can be applied when there has been a previous conviction for vehicular homicide.

The bill also boosts current penalties from 8 to 12 years imprisonment to 15 to 25 years. In some cases, offenders could be sentenced to as much as 60 years, said Rep. Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, a former assistant prosecutor.

Also speaking at the news conference was Susan Pagan, whose 13-year-old daughter, Ciara Alexis Pagan, was killed in a single-car accident in September. Her friend's allegedly drunken father was ferrying the teenagers to a skating rink.

Pagan said the man has since been charged with vehicular homicide and two counts of reckless endangerment.

Gardenhire said the legislation is "about personal responsibility."

Watson, who is chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, said the bill carries a price tag of $445,000. After it stalled last year, Watson said, Haslam "did commit he would try to find" money to fund it. But it was not included in the governor's recently proposed budget, Watson said.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said "this year's budget is a conservative one based on revenue collections not meeting projections for the past several months."

"The law needs to be changed," said Pagan, her voice occasionally breaking as she clutched her daughter's teddy bear. "Not only have I lost my child but several others have lost their children" due to similar circumstances.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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