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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Mom seeks tougher laws after daughter’s death

    Jocelyn Combs sits in her daughter Michelles room at her house in Pleasanton, Calif., Saturday. Michelle died in a motorcycle accident in Tucson on Oct. 1. Combs says since her daughters death, her life has been in a fog. Michelles room is left just as it was when she left for Tucson.
    Jocelyn Combs sits in her daughter Michelle’s room at her house in Pleasanton, Calif., Saturday. Michelle died in a motorcycle accident in Tucson on Oct. 1. Combs says since her daughter’s death, her life has been ‘in a fog.’ Michelle’s room is left just as it was when she left for Tucson.

    Although her daughter is gone, Jocelyn Combs hopes her death won’t be in vain if the Arizona Legislature passes a bill tomorrow allowing jail time for drivers who cause deadly accidents while driving illegally.

    Comb’s 20-year-old daughter Michelle Grace Combs, who was a UA retail and consumer sciences sophomore, died last October when the motorcycle she was riding collided with a car.

    The driver of the motorcycle, Curtis Taylor, 23, was badly injured in the accident and sustained brain damage.

    Driver Richard Verdugo, 37, was cited with an enhanced penalty for failing to yield in a left-turn lane and for registration and insurance violations. He was also arrested for driving on a suspended driver’s license.

    Because Verdugo was not drunk, on drugs or driving recklessly, he could only be issued a traffic citation under Arizona law with the option for a judge to tack on a $1,000 fine.

    Combs said this is not enough.

    “”Writing a check to the city in exchange for Michelle’s life is barbaric,”” she said. “”It does not begin to heal the loss or fill the void.””

    The accident that resulted in Michelle’s death does not rise to the level of a crime, but similar accidents soon could if House Bill 2208 makes it through the Arizona Legislature with a Strike Everything Amendment proposed by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert.

    Strike Everything Amendments allow legislators to introduce new bills after the session deadline by striking the language on a bill already in the system and replacing it with a new bill.

    Biggs, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Arizona law doesn’t allow police to factor in whether a driver has a valid license when charging them with a crime and said the amendment would allow police to bring stiffer penalties.

    “”Not everything rises to reckless driving,”” he said.

    Under the proposed amendment, a driver could be found guilty of negligent homicide and face up to two and a half years in prison if the driver killed someone while violating a traffic law relating to red lights, stop signs and crosswalks. The driver would also have to have a driver’s license that was

    suspended, revoked or obtained falsely.

    The amendment would also allow up to a year and a half of jail time for a driver who causes serious injury to someone under the same circumstances.

    The amendment is expected to go before the House Transportation Committee tomorrow. If it passes, the bill will still have to go before the full legislature and the governor before becoming law.

    Rick and Rebecca Smith of Gilbert helped lobby to get the law changed. The Smiths’ 21-year-old son, Ricky E. Smith, died last April when driver Angel Pantoja, 31, ran a red light and struck his car.

    Rebecca Smith said they did not expect a bill to be introduced until next year.

    Smith, who said she sees drivers running red lights every day, said the change is long overdue.

    California and Nevada both have laws allowing for jail time in such accidents.

    Smith said the more severe consequences will cause motorists to think about what they’re doing when they’re driving.

    “”People need to stop and think,”” she said. “”Someone has to be accountable. A car can be weapon; you can hurt people.””

    Although she’s been told getting the law passed could become a battle, Smith said she doesn’t foresee any problems.

    “”We have a lot of support behind us,”” she said. “”I think we’re ready for it.””

    Smith originally wanted a stricter bill that would allow all motorists who kill someone because of a traffic violation to be put in jail, regardless of whether or not they had license violations.

    But Smith said she is happy with the bill overall.

    Although Combs has talked to the Smiths, she said she has not been able to become actively involved in the lobbying because her mother recently had a heart attack, and she is still dealing with her daughter’s death.

    However, Combs, who lives in Pleasanton, Calif., will be in Tucson this weekend to attend a celebration for Michelle’s birthday. She will also attend a hearing for Verdugo on Monday.

    Verdugo could accept a plea bargain at the hearing or could choose to go to trial, which would be later this year, Combs said.

    Even though the law will not help in Michelle’s case, Combs said she is pursuing the change for future Arizonans who may find themselves in similar circumstances.

    “”I was shocked when I discovered Arizona didn’t have a similar law to (what California has),”” she said. “”Arizona deserves better.””

    While in Arizona, Combs said she hopes to go to Phoenix and find out what else she can do to help change the law.

    Jocelyn Combs said everyone used to joke that Michelle Combs was fueled by candy because she had so much energy. She said she will now devote that type of energy to this cause.

    “”Michelle was a person of integrity and believed in fairness – she wouldn’t think this is fair,”” she said.

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