Clawson bill passes House Judiciary Committee

By Thomas Wilson

   A bill named for a Carter County woman killed in a highway construction zone almost two years ago has passed the state House Judiciary Committee.
   The Rachel Clawson Act of 2004 expands the definition of vehicular homicide to include the reckless killing by a motorist in a construction zone or school as the proximate result of the driver's failure to exercise due care, or inadvertence or inattention.
   The legislation, sponsored in the House by Rep. Jerome Cochran, is so named for Rachel Clawson, a Hampton resident who was killed June 19, 2002 when a motorist struck her while she was working in a highway construction zone along State Route 91 for Summers-Taylor, Inc. Clawson's job was to warn oncoming traffic to reduce speed through the construction zone.
   "Hopefully it will be a deterrent," said Cochran, R-Elizabethton, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. "It has cleared one big hurdle in the Judiciary Committee."
   Michael Burrow was charged with reckless homicide in Clawson's death. Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp acquitted Burrow of the charge in March 2003 based on the lack of evidence presented by the prosecution. Cupp, citing hearsay, disallowed into evidence testimony from Clawson's mother and Clawson's boyfriend that stated Clawson and Burrow knew each other.
   Burrow's defense attorney moved for his acquittal citing a similar case in which the defendant was convicted of vehicular homicide but the conviction was later overturned. In the state of Tennessee v. Timothy Gose case, the state Court of Appeals issued a ruling that "an accused is not guilty of vehicular homicide if the evidence establishes that the accused's conduct merely constitutes a lack of due care, inadvertence or inattention."
   Cochran's bill amends the law bringing "lack of due care, inadvertence or inattention" under the vehicular homicide offense. The category of vehicular homicide would be punished as a Class D felony.
   The bill's next major hurdle in the House is the Finance Committee where bills are recommended for funding in the state's fiscal year 2005 budget. Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
   Cochran said Gov. Phil Bredesen's office had "red-flagged" the bill because it included a fiscal note of $3,300. The fiscal note assumes one additional Class D felony conviction every three years, based on information on deaths occurring in these zones that potentially would be charged and convicted under the provisions of the bill.
   "If we have $1.6 million to give methadone treatments, we have the money for this," said Cochran, referring to the existing TennCare reimbursements made to enrollees undergoing methadone treatment for substance abuse.
   Cochran introduced the bill in January shortly after the 103rd Legislature convened in Nashville. It was passed by the Criminal Procedure and Practice Subcommittee in February. Cochran said the Finance Committee could take up the bill next week.