I Knew Sean’s Law Was Needed – My Opinion
By Mark D. French, Sean’s Dad
Note: I am very grateful that the Committee to Produce
the Sean Patrick French Memorial Run/walk has provided me space
on the Run/Walk website where I can tell my story about Sean’s
Law. The following is my personal statement about the need for Sean’s
Law, the steps that were taken to have the Law enacted and the disposition
of the drunk driving case that was the impetus for Sean’s
Law. I have written this to help readers understand from my perspective
how the Law came about and it’s goal that no other family
is forced to endure the loss my family has been forced to cope with
every day – the death of a child.
My 17-year old son, Sean Patrick French, was killed
in a drunk-driving motor vehicle wreck at 12:03 AM on New Year’s
Day 2002 on Route 203 in Chatham, Columbia County, New York by an
intoxicated 17-year old driver. The driver was arrested for Manslaughter
and Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) and had a Blood Alcohol Content
level of .12 as measured two and a half hours after the fatal crash.
A week after we buried Sean, we were shocked to learn
from newspaper reports that the driver, a schoolmate of Sean’s,
was a repeat offender - he had been arrested for drunk driving just
18 days before his out-of-control car, with three passengers, slammed
into a row of trees. On December 13th, 2001, he had been arrested,
during a lawful stop by the Police Department of the Village of
Chatham at 11:45 PM, almost three hours after the 9:00 PM limit
for a Junior License holder. He was charged with Driving While Ability
Impaired by alcohol (DWAI) with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of
We were stunned when we learned there was no routine
provision in law empowering any authority to order the young driver
off the road until a full-blown trial was held – or until
a fatal tragedy occurred. Because there were no provisions in the
law to keep him off the road, he continued to drive, and he continued
to drive drunk.
It was this flaw, this loophole, in then-existing
New York State law that allowed this youth to get back into his
car the next day and to keep driving as if nothing had happened.
The ticket he was issued said he was to appear at
the court in about a month, on January 8, 2002. In a teenager’s
mind, the ticket might just as well said, “not ‘til
next year.” The court date was a week too late for Sean and
another teen passenger, Ian Moore, who like Sean was also ejected
from the rear seat where there were no working seat belts. Ian sustained
paralyzing injuries and is now a paraplegic.
With Sean’s mom, Cathy French, I immediately alerted our elected
officials at the state capital about the problems we were learning
about with the existing law. We knew something had to be done, we
wanted to be sure another family would never have to face what we
are coping with daily.
Sean’s Law may prevent another family from experiencing
the agony and grief that my family faces every day – dealing
with the violent death of a loved one at the hands of a teenaged
repeat drunk driving offender.
Sean’s Law may prevent another 16- or 17-year
old, following an arrest for drunk driving, from continuing to drive
drunk and threatening the safety of everyone on the roads.
The Law Enacted
Governor George A. Pataki signed Sean’s Law during a public
ceremony at Chatham High School on September 27, 2002, six days
after Sean would have celebrated his 18th birthday. Sean’s
Law goes into effect on January 1, 2003 – one year after he
was killed in the alcohol-involved crash.
Senator Stephen Saland, 41st Senate District which comprises Columbia
and parts of Dutchess counties, authored and sponsored Sean’s
Law in the Senate within days of hearing about the circumstances
of Sean’s death and the need for legislative changes from
Cathy and me. Upon announcing the Senate’s plan to pass the
legislation during a news conference on January 29, 2001, it was
Senate Leader Joseph Bruno who dubbed the legislation “Sean’s
Senator Saland immediately secured an Assembly sponsor,
Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz of the143rd Assembly District
in Erie County, who quickly sponsored and championed Sean’s
Law in the Assembly.
On April 22, 2002, during a joint Senate-Assembly
press conference, Senate Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker
Sheldon Silver, announced that both houses had come to an agreement
on April 18th (4/18) to pass the legislation. Coincidentally, the
numbers 418 were significant to Sean – he had set a Chatham
High School track & field school record in the mile during the
previous spring, winning the Sectionals Championship with a time
of 4:18 as a 16-year old sophomore.
Sean’s Law is not a panacea; it will not stop all teenage
alcohol use, nor will it prevent all alcohol related accidents and
fatalities - but it has addressed a gap in the legal system and
can save lives and prevent injuries. In Sean’s home county,
where under-21 drunk drivers account for fatal and personal injury
car wrecks at nearly twice the state average rate for minors, and
where drunk driving arrests of minors rose by 56% from 1996 to 2001,
this law is a necessary and essential step to address a most serious
Sean’s Law recognizes that drunk driving offenders
who are 16- or 17-years old have clearly demonstrated they are not
mature enough to make safe choices when it comes to drinking and
driving. But appallingly, in New York State, prior to their trial,
these youngsters were left to their own devices to decide whether
their driving-related behaviors needed to be changed.
The fact that a juvenile is consuming alcoholic beverages
– and in sufficient quantity to be arrested for DWAI - provides
in and of itself, a clear signal that he is making bad choices and
exhibiting reckless behavior. This problem can be tragically compounded
when such behavior is coupled with a decision to get behind the
wheel of a car after consuming the alcohol.
While we will never know for sure, the driver whose
drinking and driving ultimately killed Sean and paralyzed Ian might
not have been behind the wheel if the law had required a timely
suspension of his license following his first drunk driving arrest
on December 13, 2001.
However, we do know for a fact that this young driver,
left to his own choice, decided NOT to change his drunk driving
behavior, and this choice became deadly on January 1, 2002.
With Sean’s Law now in place, never again will a 16- or 17-year
old be allowed unfettered access to his driving privileges following
a drunk driving arrest. Sean’s Law also recognizes that not
all parents have the capacity, for a variety of reasons, or interest
to address the unsafe driving behaviors of their 16 and 17 year
old children. Sean’s Law allows the Court to be sure the DWAI
arrest will be addressed promptly through the suspension of the
People who care about young people are aware of the
serious problems caused by underage alcohol use. These people also
recognize that when a 16 or 17 year old is arrested for DWAI, the
young person and the behavior need to be addressed as soon as possible.
Child development experts agree that children are generally more
impulsive than adults, children feel more invulnerable and omnipotent
than adults - children generally lack adult-level appreciation and
understanding of the negative ramifications of their actions.
For some children, continued unconditional driving
privileges and a lack of appropriately swift response to their arrest
for DWAI may actually encourage continued drinking and driving (“I
better really party now since in a few weeks they might be taking
my license”). A delay in addressing the arrest may also provide
the false impression that the child can “beat” the charges
and therefore there is no need to change behaviors.
Sean’s Law demonstrates to teens and the adult
public that New York State is serious about teens that drink and
Sean’s Law recognizes that a car in the wrong
hands – especially a 16 or 17 year old that has evidenced
a serious lack of responsibility with a DWAI arrest – is as
lethal as any firearm. This was proven on January 1, 2002 in Chatham,
New York with the death of Sean Patrick French.
Postscript – Disposition of the Case
During the nine months following the death of Sean, Cathy and I
were involved in ongoing discussions with the Columbia County District
Attorney’s Office regarding the prosecution of the driver.
We supported the prosecutor’s pursuit of a disposition that
weighed equally both justice and mercy for the driver. We agreed
to a Plea Bargain arrangement that lowered the Manslaughter charge
to Criminally Negligent Homicide. In addition we agreed to a sentencing
recommendation that was less than the maximum prison term and we
support the Youthful Offender status that was granted to the driver
so his criminal record pertaining to this felony will be sealed
and confidential upon completion of a sentencing period. We also
have recommended that the driver be provided alcohol counseling
while incarcerated and suggested that such counseling be continued
along with follow up supervision and support upon release from prison.
At the time he plead guilty to Criminally Negligent
Homicide the driver accepted full responsibility for the death of
Sean and the paralyzation of Ian. The driver told the court that
he was “very sorry” for what he had done.
The driver admitted to the Court that he was driving
drunk (with a BAC of .12), he admitted he was driving at least 20
miles above the speed limit, he admitted he did not provide his
rear seat passengers with working seatbelts, he admitted that he
had been using a “donut” spare tire for days and at
the time of the wreck, he admitted that his car was un-inspected.
On October 2, 2002, the driver was sentenced to a
prison term of 1 to 3 years, the period of incarceration to be with
the New York State Department of Corrections.
Three families are forever changed because of the
actions for which the driver has accepted full responsibility. Our
son is dead and the future and promise he held are all past. The
Moore’s son faces a life that will be challenging every day,
there are uncertainties about when Ian will be forced to cope with
the next medical or psychological complication, a result of his
paralysis. His future is forever altered. The driver’s family
has a son in prison. One can only imagine the impact of the stress,
anxiety, confusion and disappointment that has been thrust upon
None of this would have occurred if the driver
had been restricted from driving after his drunk driving arrest
18 days before New Years Day, 2002.
This is why Sean’s Law was needed.