Christopher Silavong

Friday, Feb. 10, 2017

Phoenix parents fight for passage of ‘Joe’s Law’ to test drivers for drugs, alcohol

PHOENIX – Steve and Tana Smith have agonized over their son’s death for seven months. They want one question answered, but it’s an answer that will never come.

The Phoenix couple wants to know if the semi-truck driver involved in the crash that killed their son, Joseph Thomas Smith, was intoxicated. The law currently says that officers, at their discretion, may ask drivers responsible for an accident resulting in a death or serious injury to submit to tests. Senate Bill 1054, or “Joe’s Law,” would mandate that officers ask.

About 100 of Smith’s friends and family recently marched outside the state Capitol to support the bill. Tana Smith gathered about 4,000 petition signatures, both on paper and online, to support it.

“We would not have made it to this point, in the seven months, without their support – their love. … That means more to us than anything,” Tana Smith said.

Joe’s father, Steve Smith, said their window to obtain the information has passed, “so we don’t ever get to know.”

“The fact is most people we talked to think it’s already the law – that it’s already required in a crash where there’s a fatality on scene, and that’s not the case,” he said.

Audrey Frost, a family friend, joined the march from Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza to the state Capitol across the street.

“It warms my heart so much to see all these people just come together,” Frost said. “And a big part of it was Horizon High School, all close friends, family, community – just coming together to support this. It’s huge.”

Family and friends of Joseph Thomas Smith gathered in front of the state Capitol in support of Senate Bill 1054, also known as “Joe’s Law.” Smith was killed in an accident June 2016, three weeks after graduating from Horizon High School. (Photo by  Joe Constantin/Cronkite News)

Family and friends of Joseph Thomas Smith gathered in front of the state Capitol in support of Senate Bill 1054, also known as “Joe’s Law.” Smith was killed in an accident June 2016, three weeks after graduating from Horizon High School. (Photo by Joe Constantin/Cronkite News)

The accident

On June 17, Joseph Smith and his three closest friends were driving home from Los Angeles on Interstate 10, according to the accident report obtained by Cronkite News. They graduated from Horizon High School in late May and went on a trip to celebrate.

At about 3:11 a.m., a semi truck crashed into their vehicle from behind. The truck also hit another car occupied with a married couple coming home from a funeral in California.

Smith and Joseph Garcia of Sun City, 74, the man in the other vehicle, were killed. Smith’s friends were injured, and Garcia’s wife was paralyzed, according to an article on azcentral.com .

In the report, the semi-truck driver said he slept seven hours the previous night, and that he left Ontario, California, at about 10 p.m. He said he did not notice the stopped cars. The driver was not charged with a crime.

Tana Smith said the driver’s story does not add up.

“If he had driven (the route) numerous times and not over his logged hours, then why was he tired?” she said.

Joseph Smith and his friends were tested for drugs and alcohol, which upset Tana Smith.

“We assumed (the driver) would have been tested,” she said. “The boys were tested, but the driver wasn’t. We decided that (a law) was something that needed to be done.”

A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Public Safety said in an email that it’s “unclear how many more of these collisions would have resulted in testing” based on a Arizona Department of Public Transportation report citing 2015 crashes.

The bill could affect budgets for law enforcement agencies, according to a memo for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Arizona DPS is evaluating the impact of the bill for the department.

During the hearing

The bill unanimously passed the Senate judiciary committee Jan. 26. It needs to pass the Senate rules committee before it moves to the House of Representatives.

During the hearing, Tana Smith testified in favor of the bill. She described Joseph as caring and “made everyone he met feel special and defended those being mistreated.”

The partial answer is one minute at a time and with the love and support of your family, a community and friends.Tana Smith

“We are all trying to live like Joe,” she said.

“How does life go on without the child you gave birth to, raised and loved with all your heart?” she said. “The partial answer is one minute at a time and with the love and support of your family, a community and friends.”

Rep. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, after hearing Tana Smith’s plea, teared up. His sister also was killed at 18 years old in an accident.

“I would hate for my mother and father or myself to have to stand where you’re standing right now and try to get something passed just so people understand (that) things need to be done,” Contreras said to Joseph’s 11-year-old sister. “I’m here 27 years later, and the hurt’s still there.”

“Little girl, you have a guardian angel for the rest of your life, because I know my sister’s been there for me,” he said.

Cronkite News reporter Joe Constantin contributed to this article.