Lawmakers to debate harsher penalties for road rage shootings

Tougher penalties for road rage?

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said penalties are not harsh enough for those involved in road rage shootings. So – he’s asking state lawmakers to act.

Headlines are frequently dominated by shootings on Memphis-area roads.

From the 2017 murder of 2-year-old Laylah Washington, to a string of interstate shootings in the fall of 2018, with bullets flying in November 2018 in line for Zoo Lights at the Memphis Zoo - the common denominator in each case is road rage.

"I will never support citizens being angry at each other and resorting to gun violence," said MPD Director Mike Rallings.

In December, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said he’d had enough.

“We’ve got to take this seriously,” Strickland said. “We need the message to be clear. You use a gun; you will be dealt with. You will be arrested; you will be put in jail.”

In his state of the city address in late January, Strickland spoke again, noting a loophole that exists under Tennessee law and vowing to close it.

"Too often recently, we've turned on the news and heard about a road rage shooting where someone chooses to pull a trigger in the most public of spaces we have in the city," he said, "The more I dug into this, I realized that with our current state laws, it's possible for someone who makes this choice to not do a single day of prison time."

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich says the assertion is true.

"In some of these cases it may be that the person is charged with aggravated assault," said Weirich, "And I think most people are shocked to learn that if you're convicted of aggravated assault, you may not go to prison. You may not do any time behind bars."

Weirich said if a death occurs, like in the Laylah Washington case, the suspect or suspects will be prosecuted for that homicide. But if shots are fired and nobody is killed the charge is often aggravated assault.

Loophole in road rage shooting laws

Given the increasing severity of some of the incidents in Memphis, she believes that may not be enough.

"If there's no death that ensues, it may be that the law that we currently have doesn't seem to always match the severity of the crime that was committed," she said.

Memphis makes national headlines for its aggressive drivers. A 2017 report by The Trace put the Bluff City at the top of the list for road rage incidents involving guns.

"It should be a stiffer penalty for these types of assaults or endangering others," said Tennessee Senator Sara Kyle.

Kyle, and Representative Joe Towns, both from Memphis, have filed a bill in the Tennessee General Assembly that would up the penalty for aggravated assault when committed from a motor vehicle.

It would also order a judge to revoke a defendant’s license for up to one year following jail time and require a vehicle used in a second road rage incident be seized and forfeited.

Kyle says other similar road rage bills have been filed this legislative session, and she expects a robust debate.

Tennessee Senator Richard Briggs of Knoxville has filed a bill named after JaJuan Latham, a 12-year-old Knoxville boy shot and killed sitting in a car in 2016. His bill, upon sentencing, enhances penalties for an aggravated assault or homicide if someone shoots from a car, and the victim is a minor.

Those guidelines, if passed, could apply to the Laylah Washington case.

“It will be a good opportunity to partner with us and have this discussion and let the public know we’re serious about these types of actions on our roads,” said Kyle.

Weirich says suspects daring enough to fire into vehicles because of road rage should do guaranteed time behind bars.

“If a tougher punishment doesn’t deter you, we want to make sure we remove you from society long enough to protect the public,” she said.

Kyle’s bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. No hearings have been set for its companion in the House.

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