Four school bus drivers face 30 days in jail for using electronic devices under new TN law

Four now-former Knox County school bus drivers who allegedly used electronic devices while behind the wheel face mandatory 30-day jail terms if convicted under a tough new law, reports the News Sentinel.

They are charged via recently unsealed grand jury presentments under a state law passed following the death of two Sunnyview Primary School students and a teacher’s aide in Knox County in December 2014 caused by a driver who was texting while driving.

The quartet of drivers are accused in separate incidents of using electronic devices — the exact nature of which hasn’t been revealed yet — during Knox County Schools’ spring semester.

The cases are Knox County’s first legal test of that law, and the second in the state. A Hamilton County grand jury in March leveled the charge — along with vehicular homicide — in a fatal school bus crash in Chattanooga in December 2016 that killed six children.

…Charged in the case are: Robert Eugene Newman, 68; Kellie Rudd, 47; Marvin Lee Hawkins, 36; and Margo Flory-Hicks, age unavailable.

There already was a law criminalizing using a cell phone or other electronic device while behind the wheel of a school bus hauling children, picking them up or dropping them off. But it had no teeth other than a fine.

After the Sunnyview deaths, Allen asked the Tennessee District Attorney General’s Conference to press for a tougher law. The result was a bill signed into law in April 2016 that makes it a misdemeanor punishable by a mandatory 30-day jail term. Not even drunk drivers draw that kind of punishment for a first offense. DUI offenders convicted for the first time are only required to serve 48 hours behind bars.

Note: The bill was sponsored by Sen. Becky Massey and Rep. Eddie Smith, both Knoxville Republicans, passed the Senate 32-0 and the House 92-1 with an effective date of July 1, 2016. It passed as SB1596 and became Public Chapter 1036 of 2016. In the fiscal note, Fiscal Review Committee staff estimated that three persons per year would be charged under the new statute, basing that on a survey of school systems (including Knox County) that had rules against bus drivers texting while driving. Staff estimated six drivers were being fired or suspended statewide each year for use of electronic devices and that the 30-day sentence would deter the practice so just three were charged annually.

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