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Tennessee lawmakers pass bill requiring drunk drivers to pay child support if they kill parents: 'Make people think twice'

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Lawmakers in Tennessee have passed a bill that would require by law that drunk drivers who kill the parents of minors in car accidents pay child support to the children.

House Bill 1834 was unanimously passed by the Tennessee Senate on Wednesday. In March, the bill unanimously passed in Tennessee's House of Representatives.

The bill is known as "Bentley's Law" or "Ethan, Hailey, and Bentley's Law" – named after children of victims killed by drunk drivers.

The bill would require a drunken driver convicted of killing a parent or caregiver to have to pay restitution for each child of the victim until the minor reaches the age of 18 and has graduated high school.

"Under this bill, if a defendant is convicted of vehicular homicide due to intoxication or aggravated vehicular homicide and the victim of the offense was the parent of a minor child, then the sentencing court must order the defendant to pay restitution in the form of child maintenance to each of the victim’s children until each child reaches 18 years of age," states the bill – which has yet to be signed into law.

"This bill requires the court to determine an amount that is reasonable and necessary for the maintenance of the victim's child after considering all relevant factors," the bill says, including "the financial needs and resources of the child" and "the standard of living to which the child is accustomed."

Courts will determine the amount of child support the defendant will need to pay on a case-by-case basis. If the DUI driver is incarcerated and is unable to pay the child support, the defendant will have up to one year after release to begin making child support payments.

If a defendant's child support payments are set to terminate, but the defendant's financial obligation is not paid in full, the payments will continue until they are paid in full.

"A parent is responsible for the education and upbringing of that child and when then that parent removed from the home over something so, in my opinion, foolish where we drink and drive and take the life of an innocent then someone needs to be responsible for the upbringing of those children," Republican State Rep. Mark White told WREG-TV.

The idea for the bill originally came from a Missouri grandmother who lost her son – Cordell Williams, his fiance – Lacey Newton, and their 4-month-old son – Cordell II, in a tragic drunk driving car accident in April 2021. The bill is named after Cecilia Williams' 5-year-old grandson Bentley – who lost both of his parents in the drunk driving crash. The drunk driving accident also orphaned Bentley's 3-year-old sibling named Mason.

"I remember looking at my clock and I said it’s 12:36 a.m., who's knocking at my door like that," Williams told KYTV. "The first thing you're seeing was a state trooper and an officer. And when I think about their words, I remember looking past them trying to look for them. They said they died in a fiery crash, unrecognizable."

"Try explaining that to a child. It’s not easy. Parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, they should never have to explain it to children," Williams explained. "Because someone decided to go and play God and take someone’s life. It’s not fair."

Williams' cousin and Tennessee resident Diane Sutton pitched the idea for the bill to Republican State Rep. Mark Hall – who introduced the bill in the state legislature in February.

Sutton told WZTV, "It's really just a great law, and it should be nationwide."

Bentley's Law was amended to Ethan's, Hailey's, and Bentley's Law, to include the children of 38-year-old Tennessee officer Nicholas Galinger – who was killed in a 2019 hit-in-run accident by a drunk driver.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving said in a statement, "MADD believes that passing Bentley's Law will make people think twice before getting behind the wheel impaired. If a person makes the choice to drive impaired and kills a parent, the person will encounter another consequence for their deadly decision. To the victim of the impaired drivers, Bentley's Law allows for another avenue of restitution to help ensure justice."

If passed, Tennessee would be the first state to put such a law on its books. Meanwhile, other states are reportedly considering adopting the law.

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