INDIANAPOLIS — Legislation written in tribute to a fallen Mishawaka police officer and his K-9 partner is eligible for Gov. Mitch Daniels' signature. The Indiana House of Representatives and Senate both voted Thursday to approve the final version of Senate Bill 170, which raises penalties for people who cause the death of an officer while fleeing police and those who kill a law-enforcement animal while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. St. Joseph County Prosecutor Michael Dvorak requested the measure after Mishawaka police Cpl. James Szuba and his K-9 partner, Ricky, were killed in a car crash Jan. 9. Local residents were upset when they learned Shawn Devine, the man accused of driving drunk and causing the crash, could not be charged for the dog's death. It already is a Class D felony in Indiana to "knowingly or intentionally" injure a law-enforcement animal and cause its death, but state law does not provide for a criminal charge when the animal's death is caused by impaired driving. S.B. 170 makes it possible for a Class D felony charge to be filed against impaired drivers who cause such an animal's death. A Class D felony conviction carries a potential sentence of six months to three years in prison. "I think we closed a loophole in the current law," said Rep. Ryan Dvorak, D-South Bend, who is the prosecutor's son and presented the bill on the House floor Thursday. S.B. 170 also raises the penalty for drivers who cause the death of an officer while fleeing police from a Class B felony to a Class A felony. Those convicted of a Class A felony face prison sentences of 20 years to 50 years. "This law will serve as a tribute and recognize the sacrifice and honor the memory of Officer Szuba, along with his trained K-9 partner," said Sen. Joe Zakas, R-Granger, who sponsored S.B. 170. Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, spoke strongly in favor of the bill Thursday. He pointed out that it's supported by the Fraternal Order of Police, the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and the Indiana Public Defenders Council. "It's a very basic bill," said Arnold, a former LaPorte County sheriff. "It sends a message to people out there that drunken driving is not going to be tolerated in our society." The Senate approved S.B. 170 by a vote of 36-14, and the House voted 67-28 in favor of it. Some legislators opposed the bill because of what they viewed as overly harsh penalties for what could be accidents or reckless, though not malicious, behavior. Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, said he supports police officers, but a Class A felony carrying a sentence of up to 50 years is too much for an offense that someone didn't knowingly and intentionally commit. Sen. Lindel Hume, D-Princeton, said he doesn't think a Class A felony charge will be any more effective than a Class B felony in deterring people from fleeing police.
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