PHOENIX - A big step forward today for "Pam's law" named after a Chandler mother who was hit and killed by a driver with a suspended license, more than one year ago.
For her family, Pamela Hesselbacher's justice may not be found in a courtroom as they had expected, but in the state legislature.
Hesselbacher and her two children were heading from a park in Chandler, near Ray Road and College Avenue, when they were a hit by a driver who told police that he did not see the red light.
Hesselbacher was killed, her two children severely injured.
Jodi Kieran, Hesselbacher's mother, said they were angry and surprised to learn the driver, William Epperlein, had a long rap sheet that consisted of multiple traffic violations including DUI's, failure to yield, and excessive speeding. Records show he was also driving on a suspended license.
Kieran said she really thought those things would hurt him, as they proceeded to court.
To everyone's surprise, and the family's horror, the County Attorney’s Office announced they would not prosecute the case, and sent it back to city court, for misdemeanor charges.
Kieran said she this was like pouring salt on their wounds, as the man accused of leading to their daughter's death and grandchildren's injuries would walk away with virtually no jail time, and a slap on the wrist.
"We've had almost 1,000 people die last year. We need to get stricter laws to get people to pay more attention to what they're doing," said Kieran.
Kieran said they were very disappointed when they learned Epperlein would only face misdemeanor charges due to a legal loophole in state law.
The loophole, a big reason the Maricopa County Attorney's Office decided not to prosecute the case.
Arizona State Representative Maria Syms (R) who is now helping the family close this loophole explained the legal technicality.
"In this case, the technicality was the person was driving and did not provide the required insurance, proof of insurance," said Syms.
Syms explained that even though Epperlein had a suspended license, it was not revoked.
Epperlein's driver's license would have been revoked for a DUI but re-instated once he agreed to all the court instructions, which is to get high-risk insurance or SR-22.
In this case, Epperlein allegedly did not purchase the high-risk insurance, thus his license was suspended, not revoked.
While this may sound like a small technicality in terms of the law, the language here makes a big difference in terms of being charged with a felony versus a misdemeanor.
The Kieran's now hoped "Pam's law" would close that legal loophole.
"I think the thing that resonated with me most is that she was a young mother just taking her children home from a park like many of us do. As a mother of three myself and a lawmaker, these are the stories that keep me up at night," said Syms.
House Bill 2522 would amend the traffic violations to close this legal loophole and hold repeat offenders who caused an accident leading to death or severe injuries accountable for their actions.
"We are not going to close that loophole. We may not get immediate justice for the Hesselbacher family but we can certainly make sure people like this are held accountable in the future" said Syms.
The bill moved forward toward a third reading in the Senate today, after some minor amendments.
The family was very relieved after an amendment proposed by State Senator Juan Mendez to take into account a person's "intent" failed on the Senate floor.
Kieran said she felt "intent" was such an open ended subjective thing, that it would just create another loophole in the law, giving repeat offenders like Epperlein another way out from facing criminal consequences for hurting or killing someone on a suspended license.
"They broke the law. It dosen't matter what they're thinking. They knew what the law was when they got their license," said Kieran.
The bill now goes for a third reading, then back to the House for a final vote before it lands on the Governor's desk for a signature.
"It's not over till it's over but it looks like it's got a good chance of making it now. I see a light at the end of the tunnel," said Kieran.