Friday, November 20, 2009

Leandra's Legacy

Assembly Passes

A Stronger Law

Than It Wanted

By Henry J. Stern

November 19, 2009

In the absence of agreement on the budget, the Legislature feels the necessity to do something to earn the extra expense money its members are paid every day they come to Albany. BTW, it is $171 per day if one stays overnight. Many of them have places to crash, so the expense money largely remains in their pockets.

The solons also legitimately want to show some accomplishment, so that there will be other stories in the media beside tales of their so far unsuccessful effort to close the budget gap without displeasing the health and education lobbies.

The Legislature is capable of passing meritorious bills, as long as there is an over-riding, possibly self-serving motive for taking action. Additional incentive is sometimes needed to overcome the inertia and reluctance to act which often characterizes deliberative bodies, particularly ours.

Wednesday the press carried a positive news story, illustrated with photographs, of Governor Paterson, accompanied by Speaker Silver and other legislative luminaries, signing Leandras Law, as the latest victim-induced legislation is called.

The sequence of events began forty days ago, as reported in the Times story by Simon Akam and Colin Moynihan. It was an account of a horrific automobile accident, caused by a drunk and irresponsible driver.

Leandra Rosado, eleven years old, was a passenger in a van with six of her young girlfriends on October 11, six weeks ago. The vans driver, Carmen Huertas, 32, had been drinking at a party in Chelsea before picking up the girls and heading toward her home in the Bronx. After driving erratically for some time on the Henry Hudson Parkway, she lost control of the van, skidded off the highway and crashed into a tree near 96th Street.

A Times story later that day quoted Israel Soto, father of critically injured Kayla Sanchez, as follows:

'The girls got into the car with Ms. Huertas, where she had apparently been attending a party, Mr. Soto said. When she began driving fast, the girls pleaded with her to slow down, Mr. Soto said his daughter told him.

'If you think this is bad, wait until we get to the highway,' Ms. Huertas told them, according to the account Mr. Soto received from Kayla.

He said Ms. Huertas asked the girls: 'Who thinks were going to crash? Raise your hand if you think were going to crash.'

Leandras father, trying to deal with his loss, told the Times later on October 11: 'New York City, New York State, they need to get tougher with this.' Acting with remarkable speed, the legislature passed a law making drunken driving with a child under 15 in the car a felony. Governor Paterson, a supporter of the bill, has promised to sign it.

The real fight on this issue was between the Senate and the Assembly, led by Speaker Sheldon Silver, who originally wanted a blood alcohol count of 0.18 to be the standard for a felony conviction. The general standard for drunken driving is 0.08 per cent of alcohol in the bloodstream. The far higher alcohol tolerance the Assembly proposed would require a driver to be more than twice as drunk to be guilty of a felony.

An uproar greeted the Assembly proposal. The Daily News ran three editorials on the subject, on Nov. 12, 16 and 18.

The lede on the first: 'Lenny Rosado is no fool. The still-grieving father of 11-year-old Leandra Rosado killed in a fiery crash in a car driven by a drunk knew better than to fall for an Albany con job.'

The lede on the November 16 editorial: 'The Legislature will convene in special session today and must not adjourn without passage of Leandras Law. The real Leandras Law. Not a pale imitation meant to placate without fully punishing drunken adults who place kids at risk by taking to the road bombed.'

On November 18, after the bill passed, the News recounted the victory: 'The obstacle was the Democratic-controlled Assembly, a body infamously reluctant to toughen the penal code in virtually any way, shape or form. But this time, the Assembly was up against Lenny Rosado, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a barrage of stories, editorials and editorial cartoons in this paper, not to mention plain old common sense.

'Finally the Assembly came around, with the bonus that Speaker Sheldon Silver also got behind legislation that would make convicted drunken drivers install ignition interlocking devices in their cars. These are mechanisms that prevent a car from starting unless a drivers breath is alcohol-free.'

This narrative tells how an awful tragedy, public outrage and newspaper pressure can result in a beneficial change in state law. It shouldnt have to require such a set of circumstances to induce the legislature to act. Sadly it often does.

Leandras case also indicates one of the strengths of Sheldon Silver. Some of his downstate members are no friends of the Penal Code, as a result of either inclination or experience. But his upstate members, who will be challenged by Republicans in 2010 in marginal districts, do not want to be apologists and enablers for drunks driving children. These drivers inexcusable irresponsibility has injured and killed people, young and old, in their districts.

The speaker balanced the equities and the exposure of his caucus, intensified by the pressure from the press, and reversed his earlier decision, adding the new provision requiring interlocks that made the Assembly bill broader than the Senate bill. That is one reason Silver is king of the hill (Capitol Hill). 'You got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em, know when to walk away and know when to run.'

The impact of Leandras case was immeasurably strengthened by the prior Taconic disaster on July 26. A drunk, stoned woman named Diane Schuler drove one-way against traffic for nearly two miles before a head-on collision which killed eight people: herself, her baby daughter, three nieces in her car, and a family of three in an SUV which the Schulers Ford Windstar crashed into. Since the driver was killed, there was no one to pursue. Had she survived, she deserved to be treated as a felon, but that could have been regarded as over-charging.

There has been no new legislation following the Schuler case. That tragedy, with multiple deaths, does raise the factual issue of how a person could drive two miles in the wrong direction on a major highway without being intercepted, despite repeated 911 calls from other motorists. This horrible case should lead to changes in preventive mechanisms, possibly GPS monitoring of important thoroughfares.

The governor and legislature deserve credit for the incredibly rapid passage of Leandras law. Let us hope that it will not have to be applied frequently. Message: Do not drive children around when you have been drinking. Or else.

LAWS NAMED FOR CRIME VICTIMS - starting 77 years ago

There should be a long list of laws named for the victims of crimes that led to their enactment, beginning perhaps with the Lindbergh law that followed the kidnapping of the infant son of the aviator Charles Lindbergh in March 1932. Three months later, in June 1932, Congress made abduction across a state line a Federal felony.

Wikipedia contains many eponymous lists (e.g., chess openings, chemical elements, scientific laws, roads in London, anatomical parts, diseases, etc.) but we could not find a list that would include Megans Law (New Jersey - identification of sex offenders). Congress recently enacted the Matthew Shepard Act (including gender and sexual orientation as categories to be included as hate crimes, thereby subjecting the perpetrators of such crimes to increased penalties).

If any of you can find such a list of eponymous laws, please let us know. We will publish a link to the list.

StarQuest #620 11.19.2009 1290wds

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:34 PM

    You are the only paper i have read that attempted to see if the law actually has helped since being passed. thanks it helped a lot because i have to do a school paper