Drunk Driving Tragedy Prompts 'John's Law'
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
"He was a bright, shining light because he was such a giving person. We loved him because he was our son, but we also loved the kind of person he was. Every time he came home, it was a celebration," Bill Elliott recalls of his son, a Class of 2000 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Late one night last July, the pleasure that surrounded Ensign Elliott's homecomings ended abruptly and tragically. The ink barely dry on his commission as an officer in the U.S. Navy, the 22-year old Elliott was driving through southern New Jersey on his way home for his mother's birthday when he was killed in a collision caused by a drunk driver.
John Elliott's death robbed his family of the joy of his life. It robbed his Navy classmates of a friend they had honored as an exemplar of leadership and character. And it robbed the Navy of a promising young officer ready to pursue his dream of going to flight school at Pensacola, Fla. and becoming a navigator on a P-3 subchaser.
But it failed to end the celebration of a life that John's family and friends say he lived passionately for others as a son, as a brother, and as a student and peer counselor at the Naval Academy. "Midshipmen rarely trust a peer with personal problems, yet we trusted John to be both our counselor and friend," remembers Midshipman Pritha Mahadevan of John's service as his company's human education resource officer (HERO).
Less than three hours before the fatal collision, Michael Pangle, 37, who also died in the accident, had been arrested by New Jersey State Police for driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol level of 0.21 - more than twice the state's legal limit. In accord with state law, the police booked Pangle and allowed him to call a friend to come pick him up.
Instead of taking Pangle home, Kenneth W. Powell returned him to his car.
Powell's fateful decision --and its irrevocable consequences -- prompted New Jersey state Sen. William L. Gormley to sponsor a bill intended to ensure that what happened to the young naval officer would never happen again.
Earlier this year, with John Elliott's parents looking on, acting New Jersey Gov. Donald DiFrancesco signed "John's Law," which allows state and local police to impound the vehicles of DUI offenders until they are sober enough to drive.
In addition to the vehicle impoundment provision, the new law, which takes effect Aug. 1, requires that the person called to pick up an arrested driver get written notification of their potential civil and criminal liability if that driver gets back behind the wheel.
Donald Walton, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, worries that this provision may be overly broad. It could increase the likelihood of liability proceedings, even against responsible actions, Walton says.
Negligence already carries potential liability under New Jersey law. Kenneth Powell, the man who returned Pangle to his car on the night of John Elliott's death, faces charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault by automobile.
Thousands attended John Elliott's funeral in his hometown of Egg Harbor, N.J., probably the largest memorial service the town has ever seen. His parents confronted their grief and set out to preserve their son's generous spirit with a scholarship fund at his high school and an endowment for character education at the Naval Academy, both in the young officer's name.
In addition to pushing for the adoption "John's Law," they launched a program called the Hero Campaign for Designated Drivers, which is also designed to rid roads and highways of alcohol-impaired drivers."John's Law," which passed the New Jersey Legislature without a single dissenting vote, is part of a quiet, decentralized effort in several states to make sure law enforcement agencies have the power to keep drunk drivers away from their cars until they are sober.
The National Conference of State Legislatures ( NCSL ) is aware of at least six states Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina and Wisconsin that require police to hold drunk driving offenders until they are deemed safe to drive. Overnight impoundment of a driver's vehicle is standard practice in many jurisdictions, according to literature published by Mothers Against Drunk Driving ( MADD ).
But "John's Law," spelling out law enforcement's authority to keep drunk drivers away from their vehicles, may be one of a kind, policy analysts say.
Bill Elliott says more than 150 businesses in his home county have agreed to promote the designated driver program by displaying a framed certificate featuring the his son's picture and the slogan, "Be a Hero Be a Designated Driver."
The individual in a group who agrees to stay alcohol-free in order to drive safely wears a lapel ribbon in Navy blue and gold and is entitled to free soft drinks or cups of coffee.
John Elliott's girlfriend, Kristen Hohenwarter of Westminster, Md., was travelling with him the night he was killed and now walks with a permanent limp as a result of injuries she sustained in the accident. She has worked to interest Annapolis and Baltimore-area businesses in the HERO campaign and says that bars and restaurants have welcomed the chance to incorporate their efforts into a formal program.
"John's Law" is just one part of the Elliott family's response to their loss. But, says Bill Elliott, it is an important part. He has approached Maryland lawmakers to explore the feasibility of passing a similar law there.
Editor's note: Further information about the Hero Campaign for Designated Drivers is available at 1-866-700-HERO (4376).