The mother of a Chicago Ridge police officer killed by a wrong-way drunk driver in 2015 is on a mission to ensure that her son’s death will not be in vain.
Lisa Smith has spoken about impaired driving at her son Steven’s alma mater, Richards High School in Oak Lawn; started a Christmas toy drive in his honor and participated in charity walks with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
But she also seeks structural change — like stiffer penalties for DWI offenders and better roadway signage. By state statute, impaired drivers who kill someone are subject to a sentence of three to 14 years behind bars, although a judge can impose as little as probation in “extraordinary circumstances.”
The 22-year-old Bristol woman found criminally responsible in Steven Smith’s death recently received a five-year sentence, which his mother called “a slap in the face.” She believes her son’s death should be treated as murder, and she’s not the only one who thinks impaired drivers responsible for another’s death should be subject to harsher sentences.
To that end, Smith has thrown her support behind a bill making its way through the Illinois Legislature that would permit judges to consider wrong-way driving an aggravating factor when making sentencing decisions in drunk or drugged driving cases.
“From the beginning, since my son passed, I had been wanting to make a change to do something,” Smith said. “His life made a difference. I needed his death to make a difference. I couldn’t just accept the fact that he’s just gone because of a senseless, stupid act.”
Steven Smith, a 27-year-old Marine reservist in his first year as a full-time Chicago Ridge police officer, was killed Sept. 13, 2015 when the car he was a passenger in was struck head-on by a car heading the wrong way on the Tri-State Tollway near Hillside. He was off-duty at the time.
Rep. Michael J. Zalewski, D-Riverside, introduced House Bill 303 in January targeting impaired wrong-way drivers after being approached by Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel about the proposal.
“When law enforcement comes to us as policymakers and says, ‘Hey, look. There’s a flaw in the code and we need to address this,’ we tend to be responsive,” Zalewski said.
Weitzel, chairman of the Illinois State Advisory Committee for Mothers Against Drunk Driving and a strong advocate of harsher penalties for impaired driving offenders, brought the proposal to Zalewski after speaking with Smith and MADD Illinois Executive Director Sam Canzoneri.
“Wrong-way driving really accelerates the danger to the public tremendously,” Weitzel said. “It’s like a missile coming toward you at 70 or 80 miles per hour. And all of a sudden there it is. There’s no braking.”
Since 2005, there have been more than 50 fatalities and nearly 300 injuries as a result of wrong-way crashes in Illinois, Canzoneri said.
Zalewski’s proposal seeks to make impaired wrong-way driving an “aggravating factor” in sentencing decisions, meaning that a judge could impose a harsher sentence in an impaired driving case if the motorist was driving against traffic.
By statute, a judge has the discretion to impose stiffer sentences for reckless or impaired drivers who exceed the speed limit by more than 20 miles per hour or for repeat offenders, but not, as of yet, for impaired wrong-way drivers.
“One of my major issues has been the court system. They don’t consider drunk driving a violent crime, they don’t treat it as such,” said Weitzel, who like Smith considers deaths at the hands of drunk drivers to be murder. “I was hoping this legislation would allow them an avenue to enhance the penalty. We are giving judges leeway.”
The bill’s crafters initially sought to introduce new legislation targeting impaired wrong-way drivers, but concern over getting the legislation passed and signed into law led to a shift in focus.
Rather than forging an entirely new law, the authors settled on creating a new tool that judge’s can deploy at sentencing.
“Five years for taking a life? We just feel that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. We feel if we can give judges another element to take into consideration, someone who got five (years) could get eight or 10,” Canzoneri said. “We think it’s a step in the right direction. It’s not perfect. But to write legislation that dies on the vine, doesn’t pass in the first place or stalls in Transportation (Committee), that’s not the answer either.
“We felt this was the best opportunity to make a difference in a short amount of time.”
Thus far, the decision appears to be paying off. The bill cruised through the House, passing 99-7 on Feb. 22, and arrived in the Senate last week.
“I think it’s really kind of fast tracked the whole process,” Canzoneri said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that this is actually coming to fruition.”
If it passes, Canzoneri said it would make Illinois the first state in the nation to make impaired wrong-way driving an aggravating factor in sentencing.
“Other states have tried to add legislation — well intended legislation — and have run into opposition for whatever reason,” he said. “We are the first that I know of who have taken this path. We haven’t crossed the finish line quite yet, but we’ve crossed some hurdles that other states have had some difficulty with.”
How often judges actually would increase sentences for impaired wrong-way drivers remains to be seen, since doing so would be discretionary, but Canzoneri said he believes there are judges, and certainly state’s attorneys, eager to make use of the proposed enhancement.
As written, it would apply to all impaired wrong-way drivers, even if they do not cause a wreck or injure anyone.
Weitzel said he supports making impaired wrong-way driving an aggravating factor in such situations, but believes jail time should be reserved for offenders who kill or severely injure someone. Those who are stopped by police before causing a crash or who crash without hurting anyone should be subject to probation as first-time offenders, he said.
“I’m certainly not a believer that everyone needs to go to prison for misdemeanor DWIs or first-time offenders,” he said. “Anyone involved in a crash that causes death and is convicted, then I believe jail time is appropriate.
“I’m sure there are those who disagree — they believe everything should be probationable,” he continued. “But I don’t, and I bet Mrs. Smith wouldn’t either.”
While incremental, the passage of HB303 would raise awareness of what advocates such as Weitzel and Canzoneri consider the light penalties impaired drivers receive, and bring attention to their cause: getting people to take impaired driving more seriously and reducing impaired driving fatalities.
“There are a lot of families who feel very isolated and feel that the criminal justice system has let them down,” Canzoneri said. “And we want them to know that they’re not alone, that we’re a sounding board for them.”
Lisa Smith still becomes emotional at the mention of her son — a fun-loving Ohio State football fan who aspired to be a police officer from the time he was in kindergarten.
She’s had a tough time coping with the unrelenting pain that comes with losing a child, but has been buoyed by his former brothers in blue, who consider her family.
Officers frequently stop by Smith’s home, a few blocks from the station, to check on her and share meals, Chicago Ridge Police Chief Rob Pyznarski said.
“I’ve never met a better group of people in my life,” Smith said. “They have been my rock.”
The officers who were touched by Smith’s death are acutely aware of the dangers that impaired driving poses. Making DWI arrests has taken on a newfound significance since their colleagues’ passing, Pyznarski said.
“They realize they’re possibly saving lives,” he said. “I see the difference when they make the arrest that getting this guy off the street really means a lot to them.
“The DUIs are a lot more serious since Steve’s death.”
Lisa Smith hopes that through her own advocacy she can get others to take impaired driving seriously as well.
“I’m just praying that this (bill) does get passed, and we get more people to stop and think before they go out at night,” she said.”I’m not telling people not to go out and have fun, but just think before you do it. Be responsible… A lot of these young kids just don’t think about it.”