RICHMOND — A Senate committee on Monday killed legislation that would have allowed the state to convict a driver of a felony for causing a death while driving on a suspended license, regardless of the reason for the suspension.
Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt County, introduced the bill (HB 96) in response to a 2012 collision that killed two of his employees in Campbell County. The motorcycle driver who survived the crash was convicted of improper driving, driving with a suspended license and two other misdemeanor offenses and sentenced to six months in jail.
Under state law, a driver can be convicted of a felony for causing another’s death if his or her license is suspended because of a moving violation. Head told the Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Monday that the law “puts a severe limit on the number of cases where we’ve had some really bad drivers who have continued to drive and caused the death of people.”
The House of Delegates passed Head’s bill last week. But the Senate committee killed the bill on a 10-5 vote Monday after members raised concerns that the legislation would apply to motorists who have their licenses suspended for reasons unrelated to their driving records.
“Sort of the philosophy of the law is that we would rather let a few guilty people go in the hopes that we don’t trap someone who’s innocent, rather than the reverse,” said Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico County. “Which way do you think we should fall out on your bill?”
Head replied that he didn’t intend “to send innocent people to jail” but wanted to give prosecutors more leverage to punish “really, really bad drivers.”
Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover County, argued that Head’s bill could apply to someone who receives a parking ticket while in Richmond for the General Assembly session, and had his license suspended because the fine was not paid in time. Head’s bill would require that a defendant was driving after “knowing or having received notice” of a suspended license.
“The city of Richmond suspends your license, sends it to your house while you’re in Richmond — you’ve gotten notice,” McDougle said. If the driver then causes an accident that results in a death, he added, “you’re now going to be guilty of a Class 6 felony.”
McDougle, who voted against a motion to kill the bill, also asserted that Head’s bill would not require a driver to be convicted of driving on a suspended license in order to be found guilty of the felony offense.
Head asked for time to work on the bill to address the committee’s concerns. But Sen. Henry Marsh, D-Richmond, the committee’s co-chairman, said he wanted the panel to vote on the bill during Monday’s meeting.
Head said he plans to work on the bill and introduce it again next year.
“There are some suggestions already for ways that we can improve the language on the bill,” Head said after the measure was defeated. “We had too much sand out of the hourglass at this point to try to get that fixed this session. But we’ve moved the ball forward now. We’ve cleared the House once and we’ll be able to then make those changes in the off-session, and then next year come back to try to do this again.”