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Cleveland firefighter's death prompts push to change criminal penalties for vehicular homicide

police car with red emergency lights at night
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After the death of Johnny Tetrick in November, prosecutors discovered that the minimum jail sentence for drivers convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide of firefighters and paramedics is two years, but five years when a police officer is killed.

The death of a Cleveland firefighter fatally struck on I-90 East last month while responding to an accident has prompted Ohio legislators to consider a change to the state’s penalties for drivers convicted of hitting and killing first responders.

The Ohio House already passed the bill, and the Senate may take a vote as soon as Wednesday, said Republican State Rep. Tom Patton, who represents the Strongsville area and other west side suburbs.

Prosecutors realized after the death of Johnny Tetrick in November that the minimum jail sentence for drivers convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide of firefighters and paramedics is two years, but five years when a police officer is killed, Patton said.

Legislators likely didn’t intend to leave out other emergency workers when that law passed in 2004, he added.

“That was clearly an act of omission, not anything other than a mistake from the legislators on that part,” Patton said.

The Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office and a representative from the Cleveland firefighter’s union contacted Patton when they came across the discrepancy, he said.

Patton reached out to a Democratic colleague, Rep. Bride Rose Sweeney, and crafted legislation to close the gap and make it a five-year minimum for firefighters and EMTs. Sweeney represents parts of Cleveland some west side suburbs.

While the potential law would not retroactively apply to the driver charged in Tetrick’s case, Sweeney hopes it sends a message to all first responders that their efforts are taken seriously, she said.

“That we acknowledge the danger that we ask them to run towards, and respect the dignity of their work, that they also deserve the same kind of protections or acknowledgment in the code as our police officers,” Sweeney said.

The language was added as an amendment to Senate Bill 185 – a bill unrelated to Tetrick's death, but that involves public safety. The bill would prevent the governor from closing firearm stores during a state of emergency. That legislation came in response to gun stores being closed in Michigan during its COVID-19 state of emergency.

House Democrats, including Sweeney, opposed that bill, calling it “not necessary” – but Sweeney said she wanted the first responder amendment to be able to go through the legislature in a timely manner.

“All I cared about was making sure this got done for our firefighters and EMT workers, and so that was the avenue that was given to me,” Sweeney said. “I agreed that my Democratic caucus and I would be supportive of the amendment, but ultimately the bill itself we would vote against in its entirety, but we did know that there was enough Republicans who supported the original bill that this would become law.”

Patton hopes increasing the minimum jail time will encourage people to drive more carefully.

“We really need the folks to realize that the men and women of our first responders – we want them to be able to go home at night,” he said.

Sweeney agreed that increasing awareness is a key part of this legislation.

“Every time there’s an accident and there’s traffic, of course we all get upset, but thinking about the bigger picture here – that those are brave men and women who are going into a very dangerous scenario, that there really is very few things that are worth putting those men and women in danger more than they already are,” she said.

The suspect in Tetrick's death, Leander Bissell, is scheduled for a pretrial hearing Wednesday.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron and Canton for Ideastream Public Media.