An Ascension Parish widow and a statewide motorcycle group have targeted in the Oct. 22 election those state representatives who voted against a measure that would have sent drivers to prison for failure to yield violations that led to deaths or serious injuries.
James “Poet” Sisco, the legislative director of ABATE of Louisiana, said the group of about 150,000 motorcyclists is renting billboards and notifying members how their representatives voted on House Bill 167. The group also is listing the 75 representatives who voted against the bill on motorcycle-oriented websites and in motorcycle magazines. ABATE stands for American Bikers Active Towards Education Inc.
Motorcyclists are most victimized by motorists who pull out of private driveways, make left-hand turns in front of oncoming traffic and otherwise fail to see two-wheelers on the roadways, Sisco said.
“We hope to make the public aware of their votes,” Sisco said. “The culture we have here is you make a mistake, ?Oh well, do better next time.’ We’re trying to change the culture ? People’s lives are destroyed. It deserves more than a slap on the wrist.”
“They say they didn’t see you,” said Amy Pickholtz, of Prairieville, whose husband, Jim, was killed when a driver didn’t see him on Airline Highway. “But that’s no excuse for inattentive and unsafe driving.”
Under the provisions of HB167, if a failure to yield violation caused the death of another person, the offender would have been fined between $1,000 and $5,000, have their driver’s license suspended for up to 360 days and receive a prison term of up to a year. If the violation results in serious injuries, the offender would have faced a six-month imprisonment.
Seventeen members of the Louisiana House of Representatives voted for HB167 and 75 against on June 7.
The vote came about two weeks after HB167 fell only four votes shy of the 53 needed to pass. Because 42 representatives were absent at the time, House rules allowed another vote.
State Rep. Mert Smiley, R-St. Amant, one of the HB167 sponsors, recalled approaching the June 7 vote thinking that with a full House, the legislation would pass easily. But during the intervening time, “The DAs got involved and they made their calls. We were blindsided,” Smiley said.
E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney Association, wrote in an email that his group, which represents the state’s prosecutors in Baton Rouge, did not actively lobby against bill, though some individual prosecutors did phone their legislators. Adams wrote that the legislation, as written, would have been difficult to prosecute.
HB167 was named the Pickholtz Act after Jim Pickholtz, who was killed on Oct. 14, 2007, when Sorrento Mayor Brenda Melancon pulled out of a private driveway at the Sorrento Civic Center onto Airline Highway.
Melancon was booked into Ascension Parish Prison with negligent homicide, negligent injuring and failure to yield from a private drive.
A grand jury under the direction of Attorney General Buddy Caldwell declined to indict Melancon. Caldwell said at the time that Melancon’s actions did not rise to a level of gross negligence and that Melancon’s view of the road was obstructed.
State Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville, is a former assistant prosecutor, and one of the representatives being targeted by the motorcycle group. He said nobody lobbied him about the bill.
But Johnson said he and other lawyers in the House started talking in the aisles about the language of the bill.
“It takes simple negligence to serious criminal level but not in all cases,” said state Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, another of the representatives being targeted by the motorcyclists.
Edwards said the problem is that the same act - failure to yield - could lead to dramatically different outcomes based on many factors.
For instance, he said, an accident involving a truck is more likely to end in death. That offender would go to jail. But the same offender whose same inattentiveness caused a collision with a different type of vehicle would walk away with no punishment, he said.
“It was just too heavy handed,” Edwards said.