Sununu signs Tyler Shaw Law increasing penalties for repeat drunk drivers

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gov. Chris Sununu hugs Beth Shaw after he signed the Tyler Shaw Bill at the State House on Monday afternoon. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Governor Chris Sununu signs the Tyler Shaw Bill at the State House on Monday afternoon, August 16, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Governor Chris Sununu looks up at Beth Shaw as the crowd gathered applauds after he signed the Tyler Shaw Bill at the State House on Monday afternoon. Under HB 179, drivers with one previous DWI conviction who cause a crash that kills or seriously injures another person can now get 10 to 20 years in prison; those with two or more can receive a 15- to 30-year sentence. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Tyler Shaw was killed last Monday by Exit 1 in Bow when his truck was hit by another vehicle that failed to stop at the end of the Interstate 89 off-ramp. A cross and remembrances adorn near the crash scene on Saturday, May 5, 2018 on Logging Hill Road with exit 1 of I-89 in the backround. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Tyler Shaw and his catch. Shaw loved to hunt and fish and was planning to move to Montana this August. COURTESY

Monitor staff
Published: 8/16/2021 5:18:52 PM

Three years after her son was killed in a fatal crash, Beth Shaw watched Gov. Chris Sununu sign a law that will lengthen prison sentences for repeat drunk drivers who seriously injure or kill another person.

The Tyler Shaw Law, named for the 20-year-old Concord resident who died in April 2018, allows judges to give longer prison sentences to drunk drivers convicted of negligent homicide who have previous convictions for driving while intoxicated. Under the new law, drivers with one previous DWI conviction who cause a crash that kills or seriously injures another person can now get 10 to 20 years in prison; those with two or more can receive a 15- to 30-year sentence.

“It’s one of the hardest things you have to do as governor, to hear the stories of what happened, of where the system failed and how it could be better,” Sununu said before signing the law. He praised Shaw for telling her son’s story and testifying in support of the law. “We would not be signing this bill without you,” he said.

In 2019, Joseph Leonard Jr., the driver who killed Tyler Shaw, was sentenced to six to 12 years in New Hampshire State Prison for felony charges of negligent homicide and aggravated driving while intoxicated. The crash marked Leonard’s third DWI arrest, after two previous convictions.

“Tyler was our first-born son. He was 20 years old with a bright future ahead of him when he was tragically killed by a drunk driver,” Shaw said before Sununu signed the bill. “As I made my way through the criminal justice system, I learned firsthand how broken it is. I could not walk away without trying to make a change to honor Tyler and all the families who have lost loved ones to drunk driving.”

Beth Shaw decided to push for legislation that allowed for harsher penalties soon after her son’s death as she became frustrated by the sentence that Leonard could face. Originally, lawyers negotiating his plea deal recommended a five-year sentence, which Judge Richard McNamara extended to six years after hearing testimony from Tyler Shaw’s family and friends. That sentence can be reduced if Leonard completes a substance abuse program.

“It was something that I knew I wanted to do from shortly after he was killed,” she said. “I was horrified by how it seems that the system works for the criminal and not for the victim.”

Leonard’s sentence also included a 10-year license suspension and the installation of an interlock ignition lock that will require him to breathe into the device before he can operate a car.

Before the crash that killed Shaw, Leonard’s car already had a mandated ignition lock. When his device registered a higher blood alcohol content reading, its use was extended for another six months. Then the state decided he could have it removed – just six months before the crash that killed Tyler Shaw, Beth Shaw said.

Former State Sen. Dan Feltes, a Democrat, sponsored the first version of the bill at Beth Shaw’s request in January 2020. Noticing that the Senate version was set aside last summer due to the pandemic, Rep. Daryl Abbas, a Salem Republican who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, filed the bill this year.

Abbas said he remembered Shaw’s passionate testimony during the original bill’s hearing and wanted to fill this gap in sentencing law. “I kind of picked up the ball that was just sitting around,” he said. “I give her all the credit. She really deserves that more than anyone else.”

Although it’s difficult to estimate exactly how often this law would be applied, repeat drunk driving is a problem in New Hampshire. Between October 11, 2017, when the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles updated its record-keeping system, and May 11, 2021, the DMV listed 24 people with three or more DWIs. Of those individuals, seven people had at least four convictions.

According to 2018 research from the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration, drivers in fatal crashes with blood alcohol content at or above the legal limit were 4.5 times more likely to have prior convictions for driving while impaired, compared to sober drivers in fatal crashes.

The fiscal note attached to the bill did not measure a precise cost for counties or the state, since “there is no method to determine how many charges would be brought” as a result of its adoption, but the note included the average cost for incarcerating an individual in New Hampshire: $47,691 a year.

For Beth Shaw, longer sentences for drivers like Leonard make sense given the years of life that her son lost.

“I think rehabilitation has its place. I think it can work for individuals. But penalties and being in prison for taking the life of a person also has value. And we seem to lose sight of that,” she said.

Some studies indicate that more prison time may not prevent drunk driving. A 32-year study from University of Florida researchers published in 2007 showed that states that imposed mandatory jail time for drunk driving did not see a significant drop in alcohol-involved fatal crashes as a result.

But Abbas said the law was worth passing as an attempt to deter crime.

“It’s not about the studies,” he said. “It’s about the philosophy about why you have a penalty for a crime in the first place.”

He hopes that drivers on their first offense will receive education about the harsher penalties this law enables and think twice before getting on the road while intoxicated again.

“I don’t know that you’ll ever prevent drunk driving,” Shaw said. She hopes that the law will save lives, but she said its main purpose is ensuring that drunk drivers pay a higher price for killing or severely injuring another person.

“If I can use Tyler’s story, to bring that awareness, then that’s what I’ll do. And it’s not so much how the system failed Tyler, it’s bringing awareness to drunk driving, and how it shatters lives. Our family will always be incomplete,” she said. “Every day, I wake up, and he’s my first thought, and I grieve him all over again.”

Shaw isn’t done advocating for harsher penalties for impaired drivers. She would like to see longer driver’s license suspensions that don’t factor into account the years that someone has served in prison, as well as the reversal of bail reform laws.

“It’s important for me to try to save another mom from going through this,” Shaw said. “If I can save one person from living this, I think that honors Tyler and that honors his legacy. Because in life he was a protector of his friends, he would do anything for anybody and really valued protecting the people he loved.”

“If I can take this and carry on his legacy of protecting people, I think it’s a way for me to pay tribute to him.”

Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.

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