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Senate votes to strengthen vehicular homicide penalties

ATLANTA — A baby killed in the parking lot of a Gwinnett County park in 2011 has inspired a bill to strengthen the penalties for vehicular homicide.

By a vote of 32-18, state Senate Tuesday passed the bill, which would increase the penalty for vehicular homicide under most circumstances from a misdemeanor to a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature. If approved by the House and the governor, it would increase the maximum fine from $1,000 to $5,000, and the judge is not given the statutory discretion to allow the sentence be served on weekends, a press release said.

I was appalled by the incident that happened in Gwinnett County where a woman and her baby in a stroller were ran over by a vehicle backing up repeatedly over them, eventually killing the baby,” Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Tucker, said of introducing the legislation. “Many people in Senate District 5 walk to work and for recreation, and by increasing the maximum penalties for vehicular homicide, we could potentially deter more tragedies like the one that inspired this legislation.”

Thompson was referring to the September 2011 tragedy, when 18-month-old Olivia Hellwig died after being struck by a car while riding in her stroller in the parking lot of Lenora Park.

Tekila Glass pleaded guilty in the case and was scheduled to 24 months probation — 12 months on a second-degree vehicular homicide charge and 12 months on a failure to exercise due care charge — as well as 30 days in jail, a $1,000 fine, 120 hours of community service and a defensive driving course.

“The defendant was indigent and had a court appointed attorney. I doubt that a higher fine would have made a difference in this or other high and aggravated misdemeanor cases,” Gwinnett Solicitor Rosanna Szabo said.

“If the legislature wants to make a real difference, high and aggravated misdemeanors ought to have a 24- to 36-month maximum as opposed to a 12-month maximum,” she added. “This would require redefining ‘misdemeanor’ and nobody wants to go there ... yet. I think it may be down the road as we traverse the criminal justice reform that began in last year’s session. Georgia is one of a very few states that does not have classes of misdemeanors that carry differing maximum sentences.”