East Baton Rouge leaders are considering a change to local law that would redefine and increase penalties for drivers who cut into funeral processions and other police escorts, following the death and injury of several south Louisiana law enforcement officers.
Metro Council members discussed a desire to protect first responders, but some also worried about over over-punishing drivers who commit a crime out of ignorance.
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Attorneys for wounded Baton Rouge police officer Jared Neyland argued that stiffer fines would act as a deterrent to dangerous driving. Neyland was injured a year ago while escorting oversized vehicles on Scenic Drive. Council members were also mindful of Cpl. Shane Totty, who was killed last month while leading a funeral procession.
"It's happened too often," said councilman Trae Welch, who asked the measure be considered.
"Police officers have to do this," Welch said. "This is something we can do."
Depending on circumstances, interrupting a police escort would probably be treated as a moving violation, which carries a typical fine of $144, acting parish attorney Andy Dotson said.
Neyland's attorneys advocated for a penalty of up to $1,000 or 250 hours of community service.
Welch said the punishment would allow judges the discretion to give meaningful sentences to drivers who endanger officers protecting mourners.
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A Baton Rouge police officer has died from injuries sustained when a pickup truck plowed into his motorcycle during a funeral procession late …
Councilman Matt Watson said it's also important to consider that police occasionally have to escort vehicles carrying dangerous chemicals, and that authorities should consider the effects of an "idiot" causing a hazardous materials truck to jackknife in the middle of the road.
Others wondered if better education wouldn't be a more effective approach. Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg asked several pointed questions, inquiring whether higher penalties would make drivers better at respecting escorts. And Chauna Banks said the city-parish should "take a step back" and look at improving driver's education before turning to stricter fines.
Councilwoman Denise Amoroso recalled her husband, the late councilman Buddy Amoroso, who died after he was struck by a car while bicycling. She supported stricter driving laws.
The driver who widowed her said he didn't know he was supposed to yield 3 feet to a bicyclist, Amoroso said.
"Ignorance of the law is no excuse," she said.
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Many council members also bemoaned what they saw as a lack of respect among younger drivers. Democrats and Republicans alike said they were raised to show deference to the dead and mourners, and Pro Tem Scott Wilson — whose uncle was killed in a motorcycle accident — suggested those unwritten rules should be codified.
Proponents of a new ordinance said it would be helpful to clarify the law. Welch, a prosecutor, said his colleagues would have an easier time enforcing the law with more-specific language, down to the minutiae like when it's legal to make a left turn in front of a hearse.
No official action has been taken, but the parish attorney's office will consider possible changes. Dotson said his staff has to make sure that any updates to local ordinance comply with state law. Louisiana already has codes for things like negligent homicide, so East Baton Rouge will have to make sure it isn't impeding the district attorney over double jeopardy issues on moving violations, he said.
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