Jona Ison , USA Today Network-Ohio
December 6, 2016.
CHILLICOTHE – More than three years after a Chillicothe woman’s death, her family’s fight to strengthen Ohio’s drunken driving laws has been successful.
Tuesday was a busy day for Annie’s law, which started off Tuesday by being voted out of the Senate insurance committee and then went before the full Senate where it received unanimous approval after support voiced by both Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, and Sen. Bob Peterson, R-Washington Court House. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gary Scherer, R-Circleville, then bounced back the House for a small amendment, which was approved early Tuesday evening.
The bill is named for Annie Rooney, a 36-year-old attorney who was killed when a repeat drunk driver crashed head-on into her vehicle on July 4, 2013. Within a week of Rooney’s death, her siblings Kate Rooney Lyaker and Walt Rooney had committed to doing whatever they could to prevent a similar death by a repeat drunk driving offender. Naturally, her parents, Dr. Richard Rooney and Carole Rooney also have advocated for strengthening the law.
“It’s definitely the most emotional moment I’ve had in four years of serving,” Scherer said of the bill’s passage, noting the presence of the Rooneys in the statehouse on Tuesday and National MADD President Colleen Sheehey-Church. “It is the culmination of three years of perseverance by the Rooney family.”
The bill passed Tuesday was the second attempt, the first of which was sponsored by Rep. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott in Scioto County, a family friend of the Rooneys, and required judges to have ignition interlock devices installed in every first-time offender’s car. Vehicles with the device are unable to start unless a breath test is passed. The judicial conference bucked the initial bill because it created a mandate for judges who rather have the ability to use discretion in sentencing based on each case.
While judges can already order the device for repeat offenders, the bill incentivizes judges and offenders to use the device by allowing offenders unlimited driving privileges in a vehicle outfitted with an ignition interlock. The bill also extends the amount of time examined to increase penalties for repeat offenders from six years to 10.
The final tweak to the bill by the Senate related to the driver’s license suspension. The initial version would have changed the driver’s license suspension from six months to three years to one to five years, but the Senate tweaked it to be one to three years. Judges would be able to cut the suspension in half if they order a defendant to use an interlock device.
“Annie’s Law provides a new incentive for more drunk drivers to use the technology that we know reduces repeat offenses by up to 67 percent,” said Sheehey-Church in a news release. “I am humbled by the Rooney family and their tireless work to pass this law to honor the memory of their daughter and sister Annie. They have worked alongside a dedicated team of MADD volunteers and MADD Ohio staff. MADD thanks, Representative Scherer, Senator Peterson and Senator Hottinger for their commitment to the safety of all Ohioans.”
Rick Rooney, who along with his son Walt also expressed appreciation to legislators, feels the passage does a “great deal” for helping him and the rest of the family with their grieving Annie’s death. As they faced obstacles in the process, Rooney said he’d often sit in Annie’s room or at her grave and talk to her, waiting for an answer on whether to keep fighting.
“This brings me a lot of closer to closure because she’s been with us the whole way. This is what she would’ve done,” he said, adding he thinks she’d be proud of them.
The bill now makes its way to Gov. John Kasich who Scherer expects will sign the bill into law.