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Omaha family urges Nebraska lawmaker to increase distracted driving penalties

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Omaha family urges Nebraska lawmaker to increase distracted driving penalties

Feb 27, 2024 | 10:56 pm ET
By Zach Wendling
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Omaha family urges Nebraska lawmaker to increase distracted driving penalties
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The Latacha family advocates for increased distracted driving penalties in front of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee in honor of Dr. Matthew Latacha, killed Sept. 10, 2023. From left, his wife, Dr. Kim Latacha, and three children, Madelyn, Abigail and Nathan. Feb. 27, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — One Omaha family is turning tragedy to advocacy, urging Nebraska lawmakers Tuesday to increase penalties for motor vehicle homicide, speeding and distracted driving.

Legislative Bill 1340, through an amendment presented by State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha, would bump motor vehicle homicide from a Class I misdemeanor to a Class IV felony. It would also allow the penalty to be enhanced to a Class IIIA felony for one additional reason: if the “proximate cause” of death is because of a handheld wireless communication device.

A Class I misdemeanor comes with a maximum of one year imprisonment or a $1,000 fine, or both. A Class IV felony calls for up to two years imprisonment and one year post-release supervision or a $10,000 fine, or both. 

Kauth said by raising potential penalties, she hopes to provide an extra incentive to focus on the task at hand: driving safely and attentively.

“As a society, we have all become more and more distracted, no matter what the cause of our distractions,” Kauth told the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

“When we get behind the wheel of a car, you have to be able and willing to focus on what we’re doing,” Kauth continued. “We literally take our lives and the lives around us in our hands every time.”

‘Latacha’s Law’

LB 1340 is named “Latacha’s Law” after Dr. Matthew Latacha, one of Kauth’s constituents who was struck and killed Sept. 10 while riding his bicycle. His wife, Dr. Kim Latacha, and middle daughter, Madelyn, testified in support.

“It is not only in grief but also in strength that I come to you pleading that together we can ensure no other family feels a profound injustice in the wake of death,” Madelyn testified.

The case against the driver who struck and killed Matthew Latacha is ongoing; he was charged with careless driving and motor vehicle homicide, a Class I misdemeanor. 

Kim Latacha noted that a Class IV felony includes theft of over $1,500 worth of merchandise.

“Nebraska law has a stronger penalty for stealing a TV from Nebraska Furniture Mart than it does for killing a cyclist with a car,” Kim Latacha testified. 

Madelyn, joined by her sister, Abigail, and brother, Nathan, said she should be focused on her high school AP classes, one of which included researching a legislative bill (she chose LB 1340), or college and prom.

“Instead, my life is consumed by grief,” Madelyn testified.

Madelyn said drivers today see distracted driving often as a “regular part of daily commutes,” failing to recognize that poor choices can “destroy a family.”

“Changing the penalties does not change what happened to my dad, but it will reduce the chances that another family ends up in the same situation as mine,” Madelyn said. “I will never cease to give my dad a voice where he has none.”

Remembering Matthew Latacha

Kim Latacha, in an interview with the Nebraska Examiner, said it’s hard to sum up Matthew Latacha, though a letter she received after his funeral helps: “superlative in every way.”

As a clinical cardiac electrophysiologist, Matthew Latacha treated diseases that other doctors couldn’t. His wife said he would also connect with each patient, treating them as human and considering their personal lives, such as if they gardened, were grandparents or were veterans.

“He did the longest and most competitive subspecialty within internal medicine and then became a pioneer in that field and brought things to Omaha that nobody else was doing,” Kim Latacha said.

Omaha family urges Nebraska lawmaker to increase distracted driving penalties
Dr. Matthew Latacha, far right, and his family at Lauritzen Gardens. December 2022. (Courtesy of Kim Latacha)

A big family man who was passionate about his kids, and someone who was home every night for dinner. He was also an amazing chef, Kim Latacha said, where one meal might lead to a trip to five different stores for humanely raised meat or organic ingredients, and every dish was served on theme — pizza in pizza boxes, Chinese food in cultural dishes.

An animal lover with many pets, Matthew Latacha also tried to play the guitar, although poorly, his wife said in jest.

“Just a kind of person you watch ‘Jeopardy’ with, and they get every answer right, and you hate them a little bit,” Kim Latacha said. 

If LB 1340 serves as one of her husband’s many legacies, Kim Latatcha said, he would be proud because he was passionate about the outdoors and the environment. As cities become more outdoor friendly, his wife added, they must be protected from distracted driving.

“I think his life was worth more than $1,000,” she told the committee. “I think your loved ones are worth more, too.”

‘Element of pain’

Under LB 1340, speeding fines would also increase, and driving 35 mph or more above a posted speed limit would be a Class I misdemeanor.

The proposed increases in fines are:

  • Driving 1 to 5 mph over: $10 → $50
  • Driving 5 to 10 mph over: $25 → $75
  • Driving 10 to 15 mph over: $75 → $125
  • Driving 15 to 20 mph over: $125 → $200
  • Driving 20 to 35 mph over: $200 → $300
  • Driving 35 or more mph over: $300 → $400

Speeding fines are doubled in maintenance, repair, construction and school crossing zones.

Kauth said the fines, which have not been changed since the modern system was enacted in 1996, have not kept up with inflation, so they have “much less power.”

“For a deterrent to be effective, there has to be an element of pain,” Kauth said.

The amendment strips language allowing law enforcement to stop drivers using wireless handheld devices as a primary offense. That provision is included in LB 1033, from State Sen. Loren Lippincott of Central City, which remains in committee after a Jan. 23 hearing.

Ted Martinez of Hawkins Construction and Chad Bentley of Trafcon Inc., which performs traffic control services such as permanent pavement markings, supported LB 1340 and urged lawmakers also o better define distracting driving and advance Lippincott’s LB 1033.

Veteran Micheal Dwyer, a longtime Arlington, Neb., volunteer firefighter, also encouraged the committee to advance LB 1340 as he and the families of those killed in distracted driving incidents are “left to pick up the pieces.”

“This isn’t some abstract wrestling match that typically senators go through on bills,” Dwyer said. “This is life and death stuff.”

Goals of the legislation

Spike Eickholt, on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, testified in opposition.

Eickholt said it’s the position of his groups that criminal law should be proportionate to the “mens rea” behind a crime, the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing. He said there are already circumstances that could elevate certain cases, though he’s unfamiliar with the Latacha case.

“I understand that the loss to victims and their families doesn’t matter whether it’s intentional, or unintentional — negligent, knowing, that doesn’t matter,” Eickholt said. “The loss is horrible, I’m not trying to trivialize that.”

He and State Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Omaha questioned whether the amended bill would apply to any accident that results in death, regardless whether the accident is the “proximate cause.”

Kauth and the Latacha family testified that their intent is to allow the option for prosecutors to charge people with a crime up to a felony, instead of beginning at that level. Multiple committee members said after the hearing, however, that the amendment language does not reflect that goal — a Class IV felony would be the minimum crime, similar to a Class I misdemeanor being the minimum crime now.

Kauth said she is willing to work with Eickholt or others to improve LB 1340 and public safety and said she would continue advocating for the bill.

“This bill is looking toward the future,” Kauth said. “We know nothing can bring people back, but we would like to make it so that people think twice when they get in their car.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Legislative history of speeding fines, motor vehicle homicide

Lawmakers in 1977 adopted the Nebraska Criminal Code, establishing the penalty of motor vehicle homicide as a Class I misdemeanor with an enhancement to a Class IV felony if the “proximate cause” of another person’s death was driving under the influence or “reckless” or “willful reckless” driving.

Since 1993, those enhanced penalties have slowly risen from a Class IV felony to the current levels outlined below, as recently as 2015, when lawmakers voted to bump a death caused while driving with a revoked license or while under the influence from a then-Class III felony to a Class IIA felony. Driving with a revoked license became an eligible enhancement in 2004.

The Class I misdemeanor, which comes with imprisonment up to one year or a $1,000 fine, or both, has remained untouched since at least 1977. Since 2011, motor vehicle homicide has been treated as a separate and distinct offense from other potential acts in the crime.

According to Nebraska Revised Statutes, the current enhanced penalties, for a “proximate cause” of death, are:

  • Reckless” or “willful reckless” driving — Class IIIA felony (maximum of three years imprisonment and 18 months post-release supervision or a $10,000 fine, or both).
  • Driving under the influence or with a revoked license — Class IIA felony (maximum of 20 years imprisonment) and revoking the person’s license for at least one year, up to 15.
  • A previous DUI or revoked license conviction — Class II felony (at least one year imprisonment up to 50) and license revocation for 15 years.

There is no enhancement for “careless” driving.

Manslaughter, a Class IIA felony applicable when someone is killed “without malice upon a sudden quarrel” or when the death is caused unintentionally during a different criminal act. A manslaughter conviction involving a motor vehicle may not also include motor vehicle homicide.

The modern system of speeding fines, providing specific benchmarks at a fine level, became law in 1996. There was already a system in place for general traffic infractions. 

The current fine rates have not changed in nearly 30 years, with the exception of a $300 fine for driving 35 mph over the posted speed limit. Before 2008, driving more than 20 mph over the limit was the highest penalty level. 

— Nebraska Examiner reporter Zach Wendling