Driving-under-influence bill has local support

A state measure that would help convict motorists driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs has local support.

Some people are referring to the measure as “Eddie’s Law,” in honor of Johnstown resident Ed Lakata, who was riding his bicycle last year on Route 29A in the town of Johnstown and was struck and killed by a vehicle.

The state Senate passed the legislation this week. It now awaits consideration in the state Assembly.

According to a news release, the bill would require the testing of drivers suspected of being under the influence when an accident results in serious injury or death.

Local residents have been advocating for the measure.

Current state law allows for chemical testing after an accident, but it is not required. The decision is left to law-enforcement officials, who also need to establish reasonable cause to order a chemical test.

The measure would also expand the tools available to law enforcement in requesting the chemical test by allowing the accident to be sufficient for establishing reasonable cause, according to the news release.

Law enforcement can then immediately give the test if the driver consents, or upon obtaining a warrant or court order if the driver refuses or is unable to consent.

Lakata, a Johnstown musician and educator, was riding a bicycle near Skunk Hollow Road at 9:30 a.m. June 25 when he was struck and killed by a pickup truck driven by John Damphier, then 48. Both were headed north on Route 29A.

No tickets were issued, and alcohol was no factor in that accident, Sheriff Thomas Lorey said.

On Aug. 1, after a separate incident, Damphier was charged with driving while ability impaired by drugs, failure to keep right, improper lane usage and possession of a controlled substance outside its original container.

Deputies arrested Damphier on County Highway 107 after receiving a report of a motorist driving erratically, officials said. Damphier’s vehicle was seen crossing the white and center lines, officials said. Deputies said he was under the influence of drugs.

Before the local push for the measure, state Sen. Hugh T. Farley, R-Schenectady, said the legislation already was introduced, so it hasn’t officially been named “Eddie’s Law.”

“This is another tool that makes it possible to get the truth of the situation,” Farley said. “It allows them to get to the truth of the matter.”

Lakata’s widow, Cynthia, a Johnstown city councilwoman, said she supports the proposal.

“I think when there is a fatality, every piece of information that is gained from an investigation is important,” Lakata said. “Having mandatory testing would allow the families to fully understand the circumstances surrounding the event, and for the person who caused the fatality, it would provide them some sort of evidence as to whether or not they were innocent or guilty of being under the influence.”

Fulton County District Attorney Louise Sira said the measure is needed because often, when the driver in question is injured, it becomes difficult for police to get the contact needed to establish reasonable cause.

“That certainly would put any questions or issues of impairment due to drugs or alcohol to rest,” Sira said. “We would be able to know definitively whether that person was under the influence.”

The bill will be sent to the Assembly.

However, Farley said the bill has died previously because of differences in the Assembly.

“They have been very reluctant to do DWI cases, but there has been a public outcry,” Farley said.

Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport, said the Democratic majority in the Assembly often kills bills at the committee level before they reach the Assembly floor.

“Committees are where bills go to die,” Butler said. “If the Democrats don’t support it, they will quash it in committee and it will never get to the floor, so nobody will have an up or down vote on it.”

However, he said he supports the change in law because it would give law enforcement more certainty in accidents.

“If it makes its way to the floor, I would be supportive of it,” Butler said. “Any additional tool we can give law enforcement to deal with these kinds of issues is a positive thing.”

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, could not be reached for comment this morning.