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Ohio Senate rejects bill with new penalties for drivers who kill firefighters, EMS providers

But House and Senate members may work together to alter the legislation prompted by a Cleveland firefighter’s death

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The Ohio amendment was a direct response to the death of Johnny Tetrick, a Cleveland firefighter who was struck and killed while responding to a call last month.

Photo/City of Cleveland

By Jake Zuckerman
cleveland.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Senate voted down legislation Wednesday that would lengthen the minimum required prison sentence of anyone convicted of killing a firefighter or EMS worker while driving, setting up a possible negotiation session to hammer out differences in the bill with the Ohio House.

The decision comes weeks after a Cleveland firefighter was killed in a recent hit-and-run by an allegedly drunk driver. Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, said mandatory minimums pave a road to “injustice” by removing discretion from judges who are familiar with the given facts of a case.

“I don’t like mandatory sentencing provisions because not every case, factually, is the same,” he said. “That’s why we have judges, to make decisions.”

House lawmakers attached the mandatory minimum provision as a late-breaking amendment to a largely unrelated bill that’s mostly focused on gun stores and riots. The Senate voted down the entire package, but Huffman indicated the opposition formed in response to the amendment and not the underlying bill.

The Senate already had approved the original bill, but on Wednesday it was considering the changes made in the House. After rejecting those changes, members of the House and Senate likely will hash out the differences in a conference committee.

The amendment was a direct response to the death of Johnny Tetrick, a Cleveland firefighter who was struck and killed while responding to a call last month.

On a snowy Nov. 19, Tetrick of the Cleveland Division of Fire’s Engine 22 was clearing the roadway of debris after a crash when another car struck him and fled from the scene. A man was later arrested and charged with aggravated vehicular homicide and failure to stop after an accident. Tetrick is survived by three adult daughters.

Under current Ohio law, anyone convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide while under the influence faces a mandatory minimum sentence of between two and eight years.

The amendment in the bill the Senate rejected would have raised the minimum sentence of aggravated vehicular homicide of a firefighter or EMS worker to five years. Ohio law already imposes the same for vehicular deaths of police officers. Those five years would come in addition to the sentence for aggravated vehicular homicide under current law, according to analysis from the Legislative Service Commission.

The amendment was brought by two Northeast Ohio House members – Republican state Rep. Tom Patton of Strongsville and Democratic state Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney of Cleveland.

Along with his comments on the bill, Huffman told reporters that he indirectly communicated with Patton, who purportedly said the amendment was “accidentally” added to the underlying bill.

“And I said great, let’s fix it in conference committee,” Huffman said Wednesday.

Patton said he’s still awaiting an explanation for what happened.

“Clueless on that,” he said in a text message. “I certainly NEVER said that.”

Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer has reached out to a spokesman for Huffman.

Sweeney said she opposes the underlying bill, but seized it as an opportunity to pass the firefighter provision. She said if firefighters and EMS workers are responding to the same vehicle crashes as police officers, then the law shouldn’t treat them differently if they get hit by a car.

“How do we justify that?” she said.

The legislation is likely headed for a conference committee between the House and the Senate. Along with the firefighter provision, it removes the ability under current law for local police to block the sale or transportation of firearms during a riot, or if there’s clear and present danger of a riot. The legislation also generally prohibits any restrictions on gun rights during any disaster, war, act of terrorism, riot, civil disorder, public health crisis, public nuisance, or emergency of whatever kind or nature.

Jake Zuckerman covers state politics and policy in Columbus. Read more of his work here.

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