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Article about flaw in law-but are the parents at fault more than the driver?

Courant.com

Crash Raises Legal Issues

Loopholes Allowed Teen A Shorter License Suspension

By LYNNE TUOHY And MATT BURGARD

Courant Staff Writers

October 6, 2007

WOLCOTT

 

Anthony Apruzzese was recovering from a fractured skull and a broken eardrum when he stood before a judge three months ago to face charges involving a high-speed crash in which the teen had been driving drunk and slammed into a tree.

"You have to consider yourself to be extremely lucky," the judge told Apruzzese, according to a transcript of the court hearing.

"Very happy to still be alive, sir," responded the teen, whose reckless driving had also caused serious injuries to another teenager who had been riding in the car with him.

Through a combination of legal loopholes and leniency, Apruzzese's license had been suspended in early May for only 90 days despite the adoption in recent years of laws and sanctions that were designed to punish teen drivers, particularly those driving under the influence, much more harshly.

By the time the teen returned for his senior year at Wolcott High last month, he was back on the road after obtaining a bright blue sporty Subaru WRX to replace the Honda Prelude he had destroyed in the crash earlier in the year.

On Thursday, Apruzzese, 17, was behind the wheel of the Subaru when he slammed into a boat trailer at high speed, sending the car skidding sideways before smashing into an oncoming truck. Sitting in the passenger seat was his sister, 14-year-old Jessica Apruzzese, and in the backseat was her friend, 15-year-old Thamara Correa.

All three were killed.

"If this young man had had his license suspended for an appropriate length of time, this crash might not have happened," said Janice Margolis, executive director for the Connecticut chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "The fact that he had been drinking the night of the [first] crash should have been a huge wake-up call, but it managed to slip through the cracks."

On Friday, Margolis met with several top state legislators to see what could be done to close the legal loopholes that allowed Apruzzese to regain his license within four months of the March 31 accident.

Under state law, if Apruzzese had been convicted of second-degree assault with a motor vehicle - which police originally charged him with in connection with the crash - his license automatically would have been suspended for a year. That suspension would have been issued by a judge and would have started on the date of his sentencing on July 24.

But despite an earlier speeding arrest and the severity of the March 31 accident, Apruzzese was given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to enter a plea bargain to the lesser offense of driving under the influence.

Even so, because he was under 21, by law Apruzzese should have had his license suspended for six months, twice the period of time as a non-minor, which would have kept him off the road until Oct. 30.

But Apruzzese again benefited from a legislative loophole created by an amendment the legislature's transportation committee grafted onto the state's license suspension laws. Because Apruzzese was rushed to the hospital the night of the crash, and the blood test that revealed intoxication was drawn there rather than at a police department, the law states that the injured person's license will be suspended for 90 days.

If Apruzzese had been given a breath or urine test at the police station that night, his license would have been under suspension till the end of this month. But the law states that findings from a blood test administered at the hospital require only a 90-day suspension, which is the loophole that some leading legislators hope to close.

The major problem with the provision is that its language inadvertently voided the provision that doubles the suspension period for minors, said Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven, a lawyer and co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee.

There is yet another law that applies directly to those under the age of 18 who are convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol. It mandates that the teen's license be suspended until age 18. But again, because the plea bargain enabled Apruzzese to plead as a youthful offender, Lawlor said, "he technically wasn't convicted of the offense."

The youthful offender status entitles minors to have criminal cases kept confidential and for the record ultimately to be erased.

Lawlor said there has been an ongoing debate on whether drunken driving constitutes a crime or a motor vehicle violation. "It's a big, technical debate that's gone on a long time. In my mind, it's a crime, and I think the law has to be absolutely clear," he said.

Lawlor also said he doesn't believe teens charged with motor vehicle offenses should be eligible for youthful offender status. The details and transcript of Apruzzese's court proceeding were public because he waived his privacy rights under the youthful offender statute at the outset of the July 24 hearing before Superior Court Judge Arthur C. Hadden.

"Driving is a privilege," Lawlor said. "If you abuse the privilege, you can get in trouble. If you take on the responsibility of driving at age 16, you need to be held accountable. To me, it's different than shoplifting or getting into a fight. It shouldn't be invisible to the world. And here's a perfect illustration of why.

"What needs to be clarified, no matter what the situation, is if you're under 21, and particularly if you're under, you should not be driving again for a long time," Lawlor said. "Because [Apruzzese] could use youthful offender on a drunk driving charge, he ended up not being convicted."

Contact Matt Burgard at mburgard@courant.com

 

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