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Drunken drivers would have to pay child support for victims’ kids under these laws

By Robbie Sequeira, Stateline.org
Published: February 24, 2024, 8:11am

It was an unimaginable tragedy — the loss of her son, daughter-in-law and 4-month-old grandson in an April 13, 2021, car crash in Missouri — that pushed Cecilia Williams into advocacy.

A month after visiting the crash site marker on a Missouri state highway, Williams recalled, she knew she had to channel her grief into strength for her two surviving grandsons, Bentley and Mason — and for others affected by reckless, fatal crashes.

Working with other advocates, she helped write legislation called “Bentley and Mason’s Law” — often shortened to Bentley’s Law — that would require convicted drunken drivers to pay child support for children who lose one or both parents in a fatal accident.

The bill was first introduced in her home state of Missouri in 2022, but it failed. Still, similar legislation is spreading in U.S. statehouses, according to Becky Iannotta, a spokesperson for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), one of the major advocacy groups for Bentley’s Law.

Three states — Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas — have passed some version of Bentley’s Law. Since 2022, at least 20 states have considered legislation similar to it.

This year, proposals have been introduced in at least a dozen states: Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, New Jersey, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Florida’s bill would apply to additional criminal offenses beyond drunken driving that lead to the death of a parent. South Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin bills would include crashes caused by drugged driving. In some states, however, questions over how the law would be applied and which courts would set the penalties have stalled legislation. In Maine, proposed legislation passed after being amended to describe how courts should handle restitution for minors in the case of a parent’s death resulting from any criminal offense.

Every 79 seconds someone in America is killed or injured in a drunken driving crash — a frequency that often rises during holidays, according to MADD.

For Williams, Bentley’s Law is about holding people accountable for driving drunk and guaranteeing financial support for children who have lost providers — and her mission is to get it enacted in all 50 states.

“The toughest challenge is that no matter how hard we try, we will not be enough for these children,” said Williams, who has custody of her two grandkids. “Because those kids lost a part of them as well. They lost mom and dad, and there’s nothing that can fill that void. … But this legislation is a start.”

Williams has fostered a community of other families in similar situations and has urged them to be visible in statehouses to advocate for Bentley’s Law.

“I’ve talked to people in my position across the country and they’ll ask me how they can get this bill passed in [their] state,” Williams said. “I tell them, ‘Please go to hearings, go to the statehouse, talk to your legislators and tell them your story, about your families.’

“Sharing those personal stories, even through the grief and tragedy of it all, gives them hope that lawmakers are listening and want to prevent this from happening to another family,” she added.

How it would work

Under the model legislation, courts would determine the amount of child support to be paid, following a conviction of driving under the influence. Support payments would be made to a surviving spouse or a guardian who is raising the children of victims, usually until those kids turn 18.

Child support typically pays for food, clothing and housing. It also can be used to cover medical expenses and child care.

If an offender is incarcerated, the model legislation states that the offender has one year after being released to begin restitution payments under a plan agreed to by the court.

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In Arizona, Republican state Rep. Selina Bliss, the bill’s sponsor, said that tying long-term financial consequences to drunken driving offenses can be a deterrent.

“The long-term impact hopefully will be that people who plan to drink will plan for another way home than driving themselves,” said Bliss. “We want people to understand that the consequences of drinking and driving could be killing or injuring someone, and that the person in the other car could be a child, or a young child’s parents.”

Earlier and current efforts

In 2023, a version of Bentley’s Law almost passed in Louisiana, under the title of Cody’s Law, named after 22-year-old Cody McClung, who left behind two young children when he was killed in a drunken driving crash in 2019. However, then-Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, saying it “falls short of providing clear direction to the various courts and parties on how this would be implemented.”

When the proposed Bentley’s Law first began making the rounds in Missouri in 2022, lawmakers raised concerns about how it would work if a convicted driver couldn’t pay restitution.

“It was one of those bills that there wasn’t enough information, simply because many of these drunk drivers may not have the funds to do that, so who in fact would pay those costs?” former Missouri state Rep. Trish Gunby, a Democrat, told St. Louis TV station KSDK in August 2022.

Tennessee was the first to pass such a law, in 2022. But two years later, criminal defense lawyers in the state still aren’t sure how it’s supposed to work, according to Sara Compher-Rice, a criminal defense lawyer in Tennessee. She said lawyers have sought guidance from the courts on the application of the law but haven’t gotten a meaningful response.

“My hope is that this law targets such a small demographic that it has not yet been litigated,” she wrote in an email.

In Arizona, the legislation would give courts the power to levy alternative penalties if an offender can’t make payments. The penalties include incarceration until payments are made, revocation of parole or some form of community restitution.

But some Arizona lawmakers have pointed to “the doctrine of double recovery” — which stops people from recovering damages for the same accident, such as from both insurance and the drunken driver — as a potential hurdle for the bill.

In the three years since the accident, Williams has had to answer some heart-wrenching questions from her grandsons. Among the hardest is why their baby brother died in the crash. They also want to know why people still drive under the influence, knowing someone could die as a result.

It may take time, she said, to see the results of Bentley’s Law in the states that have passed it.

“I believe when we see the numbers coming down on driving under the influence, it may give us some indication that something’s working here, and I believe it’s gonna work.”

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.