CLEVELAND — In the wake of the tragic death of a Cleveland firefighter, Ohio lawmakers are poised to set higher mandatory prison sentences for individuals convicted of striking and killing firefighters and emergency medical personnel working alongside the roadway.
The potential change in state law, which would come by way of an amendment attached to a separate bill, would address a significant shortcoming currently present in state law that sets a higher minimum sentence for those convicted of vehicular homicide but not for firefighters or emergency medical personnel.
The notable omission had been hiding in plain sight since the statute became law in 2004.
On Nov. 19, Cleveland firefighter Johnny Tetrick, a beloved and well-respected 27-year veteran of the division of fire, was responding to a rollover crash on Interstate 90 when he was fatally struck by another driver that had allegedly weaved through the accident scene. The other driver, later identified as Leander Bissell, 40, has been indicted on charges of murder, felonious assault, involuntary manslaughter, failure to stop after an accident and aggravated vehicular homicide.
As officials at the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office were determining what to charge Bissell with, assistant county prosecutor and homicide unit supervisor Saleh Awadallah began researching state law for what possible sentence enhancements — known as specifications — would be eligible in Bissell’s case. To his surprise — and the surprise of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley — the appropriate specification only applied to cases in which the victim is a peace officer or BCI agent.
Firefighters and emergency medical personnel are notably absent from the statute.
“It wasn’t until this tragedy that we became aware that it it didn’t apply to firefighters or EMTs,” O’Malley said Friday afternoon. “I was very surprised because anybody that has traveled the roadways in our area knows that firefighters and EMTs are often the first people at accident scenes. Firefighters are critical in accident response teams — as are EMTs.”
Section 2941.1414 of the Ohio Revised Code makes a mandatory 5 year prison sentence for anyone convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide when the victim involves a police officer or BCI agent. Because Cuyahoga County has been fortunate to not have had a firefighter struck and killed on the roadway, the omission in state law had been unnoticed for years.
Tetrick’s death changed that.
“When I found out about this omission, my first thought was, ‘Who could possibly oppose this?’” O’Malley said. “Anybody who travels knows that firefighters and paramedics and EMTs are out there at every accident scene.”
I don’t know that I have ever seen an issue fixed as quick in Columbus as I just have.
On Monday, O’Malley said he contacted State Representative Tom Patton and informed him of Awadallah’s discovery and analysis of the law. State Rep. Patton also looped in State Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney and the two brought forth an amendment that would change state law to include firefighters and emergency medical personnel in the sentence specification.
In a rare display of expediency and bipartisanship, the Ohio House unanimously passed the amendment three days later.
“While it will not apply to this accident, in the future there will be knowledge that if you hit any of those people any of those civil servants that are protecting the public and assisting the public out on the roadways, there will be a stiffer price to pay,” O’Malley said. “There are people at the statehouse and there are people in this office who are looking to prevent another situation like this from happening again.”
If signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine, the change would take effect in early 2023.