SALT LAKE CITY — After emotional testimony on the Senate floor, a Utah bill to allow harsher bail terms for someone accused of injuring others while driving under the influence is poised to receive final passage in the state Legislature.
Suspected drunken drivers are normally allowed to be released on bail to await their trial. But HB47, also called Sarah’s Bill, would let a judge deny bail and hold them until trial. The bill would allow the court to hold DUI suspects if investigators have obtained “substantial evidence to support the charge” that the person would be a danger to the community if released.
Speaking to the Senate in support of the bill, Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, shared her family’s experience with tragedy caused by someone driving under the influence.
Six years ago, Escamilla’s nephews — three boys, including a newborn — were in their driveway with their parents as their dad was getting home from work when someone driving under the influence who had “already committed multiple crimes before” lost control of their vehicle and struck the children.
Two of the boys died, while one survived with injuries.
“It has to be one of the most terrifying moments — walking in and seeing all the paramedics and the emergency responders there. Everything went really quiet, to see the bodies of two little babies lying there,” Escamilla recalled.
“You can only imagine as a parent … how cruel that was and what it did to that family, and what it continues to do six years later. The aftermath, obviously, it has no way of quantifying that,” she said.
When they knew the suspect posted bail and left the jail “there was no sense of justice,” according to Escamilla. At the time, the family was working to save the life of the surviving child, she said.
Now that he’s older, he questions why he survived and not the others, Escamilla said.
“Those are difficult answers for kids,” she said.
“It’s difficult when it’s your loved one that lost their lives, and your family is still trying to cope with that. ... I’m happy that this is being addressed, and I’m fully supportive of this bill. It sends the right message,” Escamilla said.
Utah high schooler Sarah Frei and three friends were returning from a trip to Bear Lake last summer when an oncoming car crashed into theirs, paralyzing Frei from the waist down and a double amputee, 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.
“This isn’t anything that we haven’t all heard about, and watched families suffer from. The Frei family’s not alone in this experience, and experiences like this have occurred all over the state,” said bill co-sponsor Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton.
Frei and her family sat in the Senate chamber on Tuesday as lawmakers discussed the bill.
“This is a very great young lady, and a family who has been through a lot,” Stevenson said.
The bill received unanimous support in an early vote, meaning it will likely receive final passage in the Senate. It unanimously passed the House on Jan. 19.