Council debates 'Michelle's Law'
State bills would require blood tests for drivers involved in fatal accidents
Photo provided Manal Sous talks to the township council last week about state legislation that would require drivers involved in fatal accidents to take a blood test for alcohol and drugs. Her daughter, Michelle, was killed last year by a driver while crossing the street in front of their North Haledon house. No charges were ever brought against him.
"My opposition is from the stance of my oath to protect the rights that we are all entitled to."
Councilman Lou Signorino, explaining why he is opposed to Michelle's Law
WEST MILFORD — It is more a symbolic action, yet the discussion around pending state Senate and Assembly bills certainly brought out the passion from some members of the West Milford Township Council.
Senate Bill S-3117 and Assembly Bill A-4464 would require that any driver involved in a fatal accident must submit to a blood test to determined if drugs or alcohol were involved in the crash. The bills were introduced last year after a St. Patrick's Day accident that took the life of 17-year-old high school senior Michelle Sous, who was crossing the street in front of her North Haledon home and was hit by a pick-up truck.
Councilman Lou Signorino said the bills infringe on people’s rights. He wanted the council to vote on a resolution last week opposing them
“I would like this council to raise its opposition to it,” said Signorino. “It’s in direct conflict with some of our constitutionally protected, God-given rights. Presumption of guilt is not something I look favorably to.”
Signorino brought the matter up at a previous meeting because Councilwoman Ada Erik had voiced her support of the bills prior to that. She reiterated that last week.
“I’m in favor of this bill,” said Erik. “I can’t see where it takes anyone’s rights away by requiring a blood test.”
Erik’s good friend was killed when a driver who was high on heroin hit her head on in West Milford.
Mayor Bettina Bieri agreed with her stance.
“A blood test could prove the victim him or herself was the guilty party,” said Bieri. “Or there was no guilty party. I don’t see a presumption of guilt.”
The parents’ point of view
Manal and Emil Sous, parents of Michelle Sous, disagreed strongly with Signorino. Michelle's mother, Manal, said they know this law won't bring their daughter back, but it “converts our grief to action.”
When Michelle was hit by the truck, she was dragged 100 feet and died on the spot of severe internal lacerations and fractures, her mother, a psychiatrist, said. Because the police had no probable cause to test the 24-year-old driver, no sobriety test or drug testing was done.
“To diagnose a driver at a scene as intoxicated is not scientific at all,” said Manal Sous. “I cannot diagnose a patient by just a look on his face." Blood testing is necessary, she said, to detect narcotics, which she said are an epidemic.
“You can't tell if narcotics are used by smelling,” she added. “It has to be scientific.”
She also addressed Signorino's contention that it violates the constitution. There was a discussion in the Assembly about just that, she said. They determined the Constitution says it is okay to blood test if there is probable cause. Severe injury is probably cause for a blood test, Sous said.
Blood testing is done for truck drivers, bus drivers, train conductors in these situations, she said. "Why discriminate?"
Emil Sous said this law would bring justice and not let criminals get by. New York and 25 other states require this, he added. "What is done here in New Jersey is wrong,” he said.
“My heart tells me I shouldn't respond,” said Signorino. “I feel for your loss. I don’t like to make emotional decisions here. It is tempting to succumb to emotion.”
He went on to say the Constitution is there to protect the rights that are given. He views this law as taking away a citizen’s presumption of innocence.
“Every comment I’ve heard has been with the presumption of guilt,” Signorino said. “It should not be on the individual to prove that he is innocent. That is not how this country works.”
Councilman Mike Hensley agreed. He said the law would apply to all drivers involved, which could cause more trauma to them at an already hectic scene. If the accident involved five or 10 drivers, all would have to be tested.
“No law that is ever signed can ever bring anyone back from a tragedy,” said Hensley. “That's just how it is.”
The Souses insist that is not their goal. Justice is.
“Where are the rights of the victim?” asked Emil Sous. “In a few hours, the driver was home with his family. My daughter was bleeding on the pavement, shipped to the morgue to be cut to pieces the next day in the autopsy.”
Still, Manal Sous insists it’s not out of revenge that they act, but out of justice.
“Our character is to forgive.”
In the end, the council decided to put the resolution opposing this law on the next agenda for a vote. What do you think? Should drivers involved in fatal crashes be blood tested or is that an infringement on their rights? Go to westmilfordmessenger.com and continue the discussion.
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