Tennessee bills target driving without insurance

photo An exterior view of the Tennessee State Capitol building.

A Tennessee bill that requires police to arrest people involved in serious car accidents but don't have a driver's license and proof of insurance is awaiting the governor's signature.

A companion bill, one that would set a higher bail for those who, in addition to being involved in the serious accident, turn out to be in the country illegally, is still in the House Finance Subcommittee, according to its sponsor, Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas. The bill is set to be heard next week.

Carr said both bills were prompted by an accident in the Nashville area two years ago in which a motorcyclist was killed and his daughter injured when a driver switched lanes without seeing them.

The driver, who didn't have a driver's license or insurance, was given only a citation for driving without a license, a misdemeanor. He also was suspected of being in the country illegally, but police weren't able to determine whether that was true because officers only can check someone's legal status once the person is arrested.

"Basically, the bill says a police officer shall arrest the individual in such cases where they don't have a driver's license or proof of insurance and serious bodily injury or death occur," said Carr.

The bill passed 21-10 in the Senate - Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, voted in favor. In the House, the vote was 92 in support and two abstentions, including Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge.

"While it's a very great idea to arrest in most circumstances, there may be situations when it could cause undue burden on local law enforcement," Dean said.

The Nashville-based Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition said it is concerned with the way the bill is written.

"The law now on the books gives an officer discretion whether to arrest or issue a citation within common-sense guidelines," said the group's spokesman Eben Cathey. "Rep. Carr's bill takes the officer's discretion away and forces an arrest, regardless of individual circumstances."

For Berke, the bill simply ensures that people take responsibility for their actions.

"We have a problem with uninsured drivers in Tennessee. When someone is in a serious accident, causes damage, but has no driver's license and no insurance, there should be ramifications," he said.

Carr introduced the companion bill because he didn't feel the first one went far enough in "keeping those repeat offenders off the street," he said.

The bill makes a person who is not authorized to be in the country and who has committed "certain traffic violations" to be deemed a risk of flight for bail purposes and authorizes clerks to set bails at a higher amount than normally permitted. People without legal status cannot obtain a driver's license in Tennessee.

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The bill has stalled because there's a fiscal note attached to it, indicating that offenders who otherwise would have been released could be held longer at an average cost to local governments of about $8,300 per offender.

Robin Flores, a local criminal defense attorney who works with immigrants in deportation proceedings, said even though the bill makes common sense, it seems to give a lot of power to one person.

"It makes a lot of common sense to hold that person," he said. "You are not going to get insurance out of them if they don't have any, but it seems to me, on the surface, it gives a lot of power to the clerk."

David Leopold, the immediate past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said bail should be determined on an individual basis.

"What you have to do is look at the person's circumstances," he said. "If the person has family, children, a job, they are less likely to be a flight risk than if they are a drifter."

There's no logic in assuming that, simply because a person is unauthorized, he or she is not going to show up in court.

"What's the difference between an undocumented drifter and a U.S.-born drifter? Probably both would be a high-flight risk," he said.

Hammond doesn't expect either bill to have a significant impact locally.

"For most cases, as soon as we get them in and they are discovered to be illegal immigrants, [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] comes and picks them up," he said.