SALT LAKE CITY — Utah high schooler Sarah Frei and three friends were returning from a trip to Bear Lake in July when an oncoming car crashed into theirs, paralyzing Frei from the waist down and severely injuring the other teenagers.
Just hours later, as medical crews worked to save her life, the other driver, who was suspected of being under the influence, came up with the roughly $500 he needed to post bail through a bond company.
With the support of Frei and her family, a Utah lawmaker is now sponsoring a bill to make sure that doesn’t happen again. The proposal from Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, would restrict a DUI suspect’s ability to bail out following a crash that kills or injures others.
Frei, 17, urged a Utah legislative panel Tuesday to support the bill.
“If we have a chance to change this legal system of when a person can bail out, that would be very helpful for many people, because he’s dangerous when he’s out, and I would not want anything like this to happen to anyone else,” she said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports the change, but criminal defense lawyers raised concerns Tuesday about limiting the constitutional right to bail.
Eliason told his colleagues that Frei isn’t alone. It’s not uncommon for a DUI suspect to post bail before a victim is out of surgery, he said.
“Literally, they can be back on the road, causing harm to somebody else,” he said. “And this bill will make sure that they are at least held until it can be determined if they are a risk to public safety.”
“Sarah’s bill” would move the offense under the umbrella of criminal charges carrying a presumption of jail time ahead of trial. Right now, those are any first-degree felony or homicide.
While he doesn’t want to prohibit judges from releasing a person altogether, Eliason said he wants to make sure a court hearing happens first so the details come to light.
The Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee voted unanimously to explore the issue for the coming legislative session.
After 20 surgeries and the amputation of her legs, Frei said she tries to avoid dwelling on the court case and focuses on the positive instead. She’s attending senior year remotely at Clearfield High and plans to get a degree from Utah State University and begin a career as an elementary teacher.
The longtime cheerleader was sent home from the hospital last month, just in time to perform with her team at the school’s last home football game. She’s at work steadying herself in her wheelchair ahead of a final surgery in December.
“I’m getting stronger every day,” she told the Deseret News.
Frei joined her father in speaking to lawmakers at the legislative hearing held via videoconference. Both wore blue sweatshirts saying “Sarah Strong.”
Dustin Wesley Andersen, 45, of Tremonton, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the crash: four counts of DUI, a third-degree felony, and reckless driving, a misdemeanor.
“He was set free into the general public before he was even sober, to potentially get behind the wheel and harm more people,” Greg Frei said.
Safeguards for defendants remain, said Will Carlson, a deputy Salt Lake County district attorney helping to craft the proposal.
In order to deny bail, a judge must still find there is substantial evidence to support the charge and that the person poses a danger to the public or a flight risk. What’s more, prosecutors must prove that no other means — like an ankle monitor or drug testing — would go far enough.
The bill would clarify that a judge doesn’t have to make a decision about bail before prosecutors file criminal charges. It’s a problem in cases like DUIs, Carlson said, where police commonly arrest drivers at the scene but several days pass before the formal charges come through.
Attorney Mark Moffat said he saw the tragic case as an outlier and struggled to understand why a judge set bail at just $5,000. Law enforcers can request a much higher amount under the current law, he said.
“That doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” Moffat told the panel.
The bill would clarify that a judge doesn’t need to hear testimony to decide whether there’s substantial evidence to detain a person ahead of trial, but Moffat said some judges want to hear from witnesses, most often police officers, before they take the serious step of denying bail.
Steve Burton, with the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, contends the move could actually lead to repeat offenses. He said research has shown that defendants who remain jailed for several days and lose their jobs are more likely to drive drunk again.
Burton said the problem could be addressed in other ways like a standard bail rate for DUIs that injure others.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, disagreed. He said those most likely to be killed are drunken drivers and their families, so the bill would keep them and others safer for longer.