A 2012 Iowa law that stiffened penalties for school bus traffic violations, after a young girl died, rarely snares the dangerous drivers that served as Kadyn’s Law’s inspiration, some prosecutors say.
Instead, confused motorists tripped up on technicalities — not for putting children in danger — are saddled with hefty fines and a mandatory suspended license that can disrupt school and work schedules, they say.
“The circumstances when they thought of it were a bus stopped with the stop sign out on a wide open road and someone drives by at high rate of speed, something where we all agree deserves a severe penalty,” said Mike Wolf, Clinton County Attorney. “But we don’t see those.”
The law is designed to assess the severe penalties regardless of the circumstances. Meanwhile, judges, prosecutors and even police say their hands are tied, and in many cases defendants have pleaded guilty without realizing the extent of penalties.
Some want Kadyn’s Law changed so judges and prosecutors have discretion in assessing punishment based on the facts of the case.
State Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton said she’s heard from Wolf and magistrates who were caught by surprise with the severity of penalties and frustrated they had no discretion. Wolfe plans to reintroduce an amendment, which fell short last session, to allow a safe driver class and a one-year probation in lieu of a suspended license.
“I admire the family of the little girl for their lobbying effort,” Wolfe said. “But I think there are unintended consequences on the administrative side that needs tweaking.”
The Department of Education, among others, supports the law as it exists. U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, is pushing to make Kadyn’s Law the national standard.
A young life lost
In May 2011, a motorist fatally struck a 7-year-old Kensett girl named Kadyn Halverson.
Passing a school bus illegally causes six to eight deaths a year nationally, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Kadyn’s bus was stopped with stop-arm extended and flashing lights, but Aaron D. Gunderson, of Northwood, blew past at 60 miles per hour and said he never saw Kadyn crossing the street. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Lawmakers worked with the Halverson family to craft a law severe enough to make motorists take notice when they see a school bus, and hopefully prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.
“I know it’s difficult, but people need to abide by the law,” Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said this week. “When you see a school bus, be prepared to stop. Period, end of story.”
Serious traffic violation
School bus drivers typically document the infraction in a violation report.
If the vehicle description in the violation report checks out, a chain of events ensues including police issuing a ticket, prosecution and dual criminal and administrative processes that include preset penalties.
“Many people don’t realize how severe the penalties are. It’s substantial,” said Iowa City Police Sgt. Scott Gaarde. “(But), police are the middleman. We are compelled to issue a ticket.”
Motorists can appeal, but unless the bus has surveillance cameras it’s their word versus the bus driver’s. The owner of the vehicle, even if that person wasn’t driving, can be prosecuted if another driver can’t be identified, according to Iowa Code.
“You try to cross examine as best you can, but the court tends to err on the side of caution, the bus driver,” said Scott Michels, an attorney with Gourley, Rehkemper & Lindholm in West Des Moines.
‘My record is perfect’
Blaine Bolin, 36, is one of the people convicted under Kadyn’s Law.
He’d been following a school bus on a residential street near his home in Ankeny in December 2012. The bus flashed amber lights, slowed, activated its stop arm and stopped. Bolin stopped, too.
Then, the bus driver waved him around, which the bus driver did on occasion, Bolin said. With no children in sight, Bolin proceeded. Except the bus driver said he never motioned for Bolin to pass, and submitted a violation report to police, triggering a suspended license for Bolin.
On appeal, Administrative Law Judge John M. Priester noted Bolin’s “lack of any driving record,” and rescinded the suspension. A reviewing officer for the Iowa DOT reversed the ruling saying the suspension was mandatory. Bolin appealed to the District Court, which agreed the DOT had discretion to forgo the suspension but it was the DOT’s decision. When the case went back to the DOT, the agency stood by its earlier decision.
Two years later, the first-time offender still is paying. It’s cost $1,500 for a lawyer, a $549 criminal fine, $250 administrative fine to the DOT, $50 to reinstate his license, and $50 a month for high risk penalty on his insurance, he said.
“The kicker of it all is my record is perfect. No driving record. No warnings,” said Bolin, who had to scramble to find a transportation for work and for his four daughters. “And, they revoked my license all on the word of a bus driver, and they didn’t even listen to me. I was guilty from the start.”
1,401 suspended licenses
Mark Lowe, the director of driver services for the DOT, said the DOT used its discretion in helping to establish the penalties, but the intent of the Legislature was for mandatory penalties.
“We felt our discretion was in our recommendations in the rule making process,” Lowe said. “Once we’ve been given a notice of conviction, we feel we have very little discretion.”
Since July 1, 2012, police have issued 1,757 tickets under Kadyn’s Law, of which 1,051 were criminally convicted, 126 were convicted under a different charge, and 520 had criminal charges dismissed, according to data from the Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning.
Iowa DOT records show the agency has processed 1,401 Kadyn’s Law convictions and all have had their license suspended.
Prosecutors say they agree with the spirit of the law but in practice most cases involve people who don’t realize they are breaking the law.
“I question whether this is the best thing to do when it’s a situation when a child hasn’t been put in danger,” said Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, who has changed charges in some cases, due to the severe penalties. “It’s much more severe than other penalties for similar dangerous driving offenses.”
Linn County Assistant Attorney Matt Kishinami added, “In my experience, most of the people who run these stop arms have no idea they are doing it. A lot of the times people just aren’t aware. The bus could be in the middle of the block or hidden behind a corner and they don’t see the bus.”
Lyness and Kishinami called it unusual for a lay person — a bus driver — to have authority over such a severe penalty. They also support stop-arm surveillance cameras, which remain rare.
Twenty Iowa districts had stop-arm cameras in early 2013, and Iowa City is in process of installing them. Cedar Rapids does not have cameras.
Frank Spinler, 67, has been driving a school bus for five years for the Marion School District. He supports the full might of Kadyn’s Law, and is critical of judges who drop charges.
Spinler said he frequently encounters motorists missing the bus’ stop sign while texting or calling. Bus drivers have limited time to jot down license plate numbers and descriptions, otherwise there’d be more tickets, he said.
Lawmakers when the law was introduced estimated 1,000 violations a day occur in Iowa.
“It is very prevalent,” Spinler said. “It happens more than you think, but you can’t catch everyone.”
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