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Chapter 271

Why 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 .09.

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 Law.”

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.

A Discussion
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 health crisis.

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 offender’s license.

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 drive.

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 this family.

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.





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