Editorial: Bentley’s Legislation will make drunk drivers pay little one assist | Editorials

With Gov. Bill Lee’s expected signature, Bentley’s Law will require that a drunk driver who kills a parent pay child support. The new law will hold drunk drivers accountable.

Likewise, state lawmakers should also use it as the basis for holding law enforcement departments accountable for needless (and not all are needless, mind you) high-speed chases that take the life of innocent victims who have the fatal misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Under Bentley’s Law, an impaired driver convicted of vehicular homicide will be ordered to pay restitution in the form of child maintenance to each of the victim’s children until they are 18 years old and graduate high school.

If the defendant is incarcerated and can’t pay, the defendant is given one year after their release to begin payments. If the child reaches 18 but hasn’t been paid in full, payments will continue until the child is entirely paid, the bill says.

Bentley’s Law was proposed by Cecilia Williams of Missouri, who asked that the legislation be named after her 5-year-old grandson. Williams says no amount of money can make up for the loss of life. But she hopes the law will lift some financial burdens of kids left without parents.

“It will always be a constant reminder to the offender of what the person’s actions have caused,” Williams wrote. That’s powerful and a just additional penalty beyond prison time.

Williams, a mother and grandmother, lost her son Cordell Williams, his girlfriend Lacey Newton, and their 5-month-old son Cordell Jr. in a drunk driving incident in April 2021. Surviving was their son Bentley, who must now grow up without parents.

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“I wish we’d had thought of it years ago,” said Rep. William Lamberth of Sumner County.

“That’s a very creative bill,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson of Memphis. “It’s a good bill and, I’m signing on to it.”

The bill passed unanimously in the Tennessee Senate and House.

Impaired driving is a growing problem. According to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, in 2020 there were 5,918 reported DUI crashes. In 2021, that number grew to 6,047. Also growing are the number of innocent people killed when caught up in a high-speed chase.

Last December, A. Grace Pearson, 22, who graduated summa cum laude from East Tennessee State University, was driving along West Market Street in Johnson City when her vehicle was struck from behind with sufficient speed to destroy it and take her life. She was another innocent victim, her vehicle struck by a car that lost control at high speed while being pursued on Johnson City streets by law enforcement.

Tennessee state law allows police to exceed speed limits and ignore red lights in a chase provided they “exercise due care,” which holds pursuing officers and the localities that employ them harmless for any injury or damages from any such pursuit. That needs to change. So long as the state refuses to ban needless high-speed police chases, it should hold localities financially responsible for the minor children of parents whose deaths came about as a result.

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