Public Safety

Advocates still pushing for 'Emmalee's Law' in Iowa

Measure would provide harsher penalties for some hit-and-run defendants

Emmalee Jacobs

Struck by bus
Emmalee Jacobs Struck by bus
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Brad and Ann Jacobs don’t want anyone to have to feel the way they did the day they learned the man responsible for their daughter Emmalee’s death would serve only 30 days in jail.

And after House File 428 fell short of becoming law last year, the Jacobs family, Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds and several state representatives are working once again to see that “Emmalee’s Law” will pass through the Legislature this year — and thereby help clear up language in Iowa law that prevents prosecutors from pursuing more serious charges, and a lengthier sentence, for hit-and-run defendants.

“When we were first told that the judge ruled the way he did about the hit-and-run, I couldn’t believe it,” Ann Jacobs said. “I just couldn’t believe that’s how he interpreted the law.”

According to Reynolds, the bill failed to make it out of committee last year, and this year she hopes the increased push behind Emmalee’s Law will be enough to finally get it passed through.

“I know the Jacobs family is very committed to this change. They, like me, don’t want to see anyone else go through this confusion,” Reynolds said.

“There are two code sections involved, and they are, in my opinion, drafted very sloppily, and we just need some clarity and conciseness to them so that people don’t face this issue.”

Struck by bus

It has been just over two years since Emmalee — an Iowa State University freshman from Urbana — was struck and killed by a CyRide bus on her way to her first final exam in college in December 2015.

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The man who was driving the bus, Benjamin Clague, now 25, was arrested Jan. 20, 2016, and charged with leaving the scene of a personal injury accident and failure to obey a traffic control device.

In August 2016, he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of failure to report an accident, a simple misdemeanor, after the judge ruled in favor of the defense, saying the prosecution must prove Clague knew he struck a person at the time of the crash to pursue the more serious charges.

According to Reynolds, the state’s argument was that Clague felt the impact and then later figured out what had happened, and then did not report his involvement to police.

Reynolds said the judge’s ruling “was fatal” to the state’s case and led to a plea deal.

Intent of law

Emmalee’s Law, Reynolds said, would clear up some of the language in state code and provide harsher penalties for defendants in hit-and-run cases if they don’t turn themselves in.

The law states that a person operating a motor vehicle who leaves the scene of an accident without knowing if the accident resulted in injury to or death of another person must give notice of the accident to local law enforcement agencies immediately after the person realizes that the accident resulted in injury to or death of another person.

Those who violate the law will be guilty of one of three charges. If the crash resulted in an injury to a person, it is a serious misdemeanor; if it resulted in a serious injury, it is bumped to an aggravated misdemeanor; and if it resulted in the death, it is considered a Class D felony.

“I think (this bill) would encourage somebody to come forward,” Ann Jacobs said. “In Clague’s case, he apparently didn’t have the conscience to come forward on his own and he was willing to take the chance of 30 days in jail and $100 fine.”

Family pleads case

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The Jacobs family has written to state Reps. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, and Zach Nunn, R-Bondurant, to plead their case for Emmalee’s Law, and hope that the preparation over the past year will help push this bill through.

Last year “we were just really new to the process and didn’t really know how much it took and how soon to get it started,” Brad Jacobs said. “This year we’re a little more prepared, and Jessica (Reynolds) has been a great help in getting that pushed forward a lot sooner this year and getting in contact with the legislators.”

Lawmaker’s concerns

But Baltimore said he still has concerns regarding the bill’s constitutionality. According to Baltimore, he agrees that the outcome was wrong. But he said the way he understands it, the bill would require someone to implicate themselves in a crime.

“In essence, it’s like if you don’t turn yourself in, then you’re a criminal,” Baltimore said. “I think it’s got some constitutional concerns about your privilege against self incrimination, so I’m trying to evaluate that constitutional provision.”

As with last year, Baltimore said that he has concerns with the bill’s language, and how it might affect a different scenario.

“Though I understand the specific intent for this particular situation, when you pass these laws they often apply to other situations, too, and it’s a lot of those other situations that I’m trying to be cautious about,” Baltimore said.

But according to Reynolds, those concerns do not apply under this law, as she said that this law pertains to reporting of an accident and would not violate someone’s Fifth Amendment rights.

“In the case that we had had that been reported, there wouldn’t have been any charges,” Reynolds said. “The crime is failing to report the accident.”

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The Jacobs family said it is well aware that this law will neither bring back Emmalee nor affect the man responsible for her death.

But they hope that the law will help ensure the no other victim is ever “cheated of justice.”

“I’m hoping it gets passed this year so no other family has to go through what we’ve gone through,” Ann Jacobs said.

“Justice was not served.”

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