Starting next year, judges can impose stiffer penalties for individuals convicted of driving impaired in the wrong direction.
The change in the corrections code, which makes wrong-way driving an “aggravating factor” in sentencing decisions in drunk or drugged driving cases, comes in response to the death of Chicago Ridge police officer Steven Smith, who was killed by an impaired wrong-way driver in 2015.
“We’ve seen a need for this for a long time, this legislation,” said Sam Canzoneri, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Illinois. “Wrong-way crashes are on the rise, not only in Illinois, but throughout the country, and we really were looking for something to kind of help law enforcement level the playing field.”
Steven Smith’s mother, Lisa Smith, called the law’s passage “bittersweet.”
“I just wish it didn’t have to take a man being killed to put this into place,” she said, getting choked up. “I’d like to have my son back.”
Steven Smith, a 27-year-old Marine reservist in his first year as a full-time Chicago Ridge police officer, was killed Sept. 13, 2015, when a car going the wrong way on the Tri-State Tollway near Hillside struck the Dodge Neon he was riding in head-on. He was off-duty at the time.
The 22-year-old Bristol woman found criminally responsible in Smith’s death received a five-year sentence, which his mother called "a slap in the face."
Lisa Smith said she threw her support behind the wrong-way DWI bill in hopes of ensuring stiffer penalties for impaired drivers, whom she believes should be subject to harsher sentences when responsible for another’s death.
“I (supported the bill) so another parent didn’t have to go through the same scenario that we had to go through,” explained Smith, who said she burst into tears last week upon learning the governor had signed the bill into law. “It was overwhelming… All I could do was cry and tell my son, ‘We did it.’”
While the legislation gives judges the discretion to impose harsher sentences for DWI offenders who drive against traffic, it does not apply to wrong-way drivers who are not impaired, said Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, the bill’s sponsor.
Zalewski, who introduced the legislation at the behest of MADD and the law enforcement community, said he believed the bill struck an “appropriate” balance by giving prosecutors another tool to wield against impaired drivers without creating a distinct criminal offense.
“In the old days … we would have introduced a bill that said wrong-way driving is now a different offense, a brand new category of law,” he said. “What we did was refine an existing category of law, saying, if this happens, you’ll face a harsher sanction.”
Prior to passage of the wrong-way DWI legislation, judges only had the discretion to impose harsher sentences for reckless or impaired drivers who exceeded the speed limit by more than 20 mph or for repeat offenders.
“The punishment never fits the crime in impaired driving crashes and sentencing, but what this (new legislation) does is take potentially a DUI crash and makes it an aggravated crash,” Canzoneri said. “So maybe an offender who might get five years for a fatal crash potentially now might get eight years or nine years.”
Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel, who chairs MADD’s state advisory committee and was instrumental in crafting the legislation, applauded the bill’s passage.
“It took a little longer than I would have liked, but at the end of that day the results are what I was looking for,” the veteran police chief said.
Weitzel, who met with Smith and Zalewski this week to discuss the bill’s passage, said working on the legislation had given him more empathy for DWI crash victims and their families.
“Sometimes as police chiefs, we get removed, we’re kind of robotic and we try to distance ourselves from the emotion of the situation,” he said. “I couldn’t do that with this one. I was emotionally involved in this one and it made me grow as an individual, and it made me a better police chief. It really did.”
Weitzel said he’s been lobbying the state to make it more difficult for drivers to enter highway on- and off-ramps from the wrong direction, but that he’s yet to hear whether his suggested design improvements will be implemented.
“I’ve made the request that they put some dollars aside just to study improvements,” he said. “Maybe a gate system, so its harder to enter it wrong, the wrong way, or increased striping, lighting, or signage, which I think are pretty easy fixes.”
The Chicago Ridge Police Department, which awards an Officer of the Year annually in Steven Smith’s name, is planning a special presentation to commemorate the wrong-way DWI bill’s passage at this September’s ceremony, Lisa Smith said.
“He made a difference,” she said of her son. “Both in life and in his passing.”
010-Inoreader Saves,00-Pol RT,14-Roads,19-Legal,26-Delivered,RK Client
via Daily Southtown
September 2, 2018 at 05:40PM