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Bill inspired by Tiffin teen's drowning would require alerting authorities

Inspired by the tragic drowning of a Tiffin teen last April, two state senators hope to create a law punishing those who see someone in danger but fail to alert authorities.

“For a family to lose a child and not know for four days because people withheld information ... that to me elevates that crime to a higher degree,” said Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton. “All (detectives) could go after was they threw his belongings in the lake after.”

Noah Herring, 15, drowned April 7. 2020, in Coralville Lake. Three teens and an adult were present when Noah died, but the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office said none of them called 911 and they withheld information about Noah’s whereabouts. His body was finally recovered April 11.

At the end of the investigation, the only applicable charges — misdemeanors — related to theft and destruction of property. Those present when Noah drowned didn’t face any charges for failing to alert authorities because such charges don’t exist.

The two state senators involved in the proposal have connections to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. Sinclair said her best friend is a deputy in the department. Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, spent nearly 30 years as a deputy, including 10 as an investigator.

Kinney said this fall he spoke with Noah’s family, who recounted details of the case to him.

“I said, ‘There’s got to be something,’” said Kinney. “I got the code book out and started digging and there just wasn’t anything. This just doesn’t seem right.”

Sinclair said the case and lack of options came up this summer when she was speaking with her friend. Sinclair said she found the circumstances of the case unfathomable.

“Who hides the death of a human being?” she asked.

Sinclair and Kinney both sit on the judiciary subcommittee. In January, a Senate study bill — now known as Senate File 243 — was introduced. Under the bill, anyone who witnesses someone else “suffering from imminent

danger of death or risk of serious injury” and fails to contact authorities would be committing an aggravated misdemeanor. Additionally, if someone abuses a corpse and fails to disclose its location to conceal a crime, he or she would be committing a Class D felony.

“My hope is to be able to basically close a loophole so that people are held accountable for their actions, especially when a death is involved,” Kinney said.

Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel said the “heartbreak and tragedy” of the Herring case impacted everyone involved with it.

“Our hope is that the facts and circumstances around this investigation are seen as an opportunity to fill a gap in the law,” Kunkel said.

Sinclair said the bill is now up for floor debate. While the bill is not controversial and has bipartisan support, she said sometimes bills take time to get through amid all the other measures.

“I think it has a good chance of getting through the Senate,” she said. “I don’t know the odds of it getting through the House.”

The fact that the law is based on real-life circumstances bolsters its chances of passage.

“This isn’t a ‘what if,’” she said. “It’s a case where actual people withheld the actual location of a body, trying to keep themselves out of trouble. I think it does give it a little more meaning.”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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