Parent of killed Lamar County teen reacts to social hosting bill

Parent of killed Lamar County teen reacts to social hosting bill

LAMAR COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - House Bill 1292 was written after three Lamar County teens were killed in 2014, but now the families of those teenagers say the legislation doesn't go far enough.

On Monday, April 11, Gov. Phil Bryant signed House Bill 1292.

Reagan Woolbright from Oak Grove, Carrigan Arban from Purvis and Justin Kelly of Purvis were killed in a car accident in 2014 after being given alcohol by Kristi Morris.

"Over the last year and a half, we've been living in a shock wave," said Paige Charbonneau, Reagan Woolbright's mom.

Lamar County Rep. Brad Touchstone said he wrote House Bill 1292, which would increase the punishment for adults found guilty of giving alcohol to minors, because of the accident.

"Unfortunately, a lot of our public policy has a very personal story behind it, and that's what happened in this case," Touchstone said. "We had a tragic accident in Purvis in 2014. The family contacted me, and we've been working on the issue ever since."

Charbonneau said, "Brad was one of the prosecutors that was originally assigned to the case, and then he had to go off to Jackson because he was a representative. He said he was going to change the law or try to get an amendment to it because what we had to work with was misdemeanors. We said, 'What do we do?' and they said 'Well, with the law we have now, it's just misdemeanor charges. We're going to try to change it and have it made to where if somebody loses their life or is seriously injured as a result of social hosting that it would be a felony.' We met with the district attorney, Hal Kittrell, and tried to get him to charge her (Kristi Morris) with culpable manslaughter, which seemed fitting for what had happened. But there was a technicality about the time frame from when she bought the alcohol and served it to them until when the wreck happened."

Touchstone's original version of the bill included a felony charge for a first offense for anyone found guilty of giving alcohol to minors if providing alcohol cause bodily injury or death and a felony charge for someone's third offense in 10 years. However, as the bill was reworked through the legislative process, the felony provisions were removed.

"As a parent who lost a child to social hosting, I think 'really?' It should be a felony," Charbonneau said.

Touchstone said, "We passed a bill overwhelmingly in the House that would've adopted a felony offense for instances where a child was hurt or injured or for instances where an adult continued to break the law with respect to social hosting. The Senate essentially amended the bill. What the final version of the bill does is it doubles the current penalty under the law. It is still a misdemeanor, but the maximum penalty has been doubled."

The maximum jail sentence is from 90 days to six months in the final version of the bill.

"We were glad that, if nothing else, the jail time got extended to six months instead of three," Charbonneau said. "We would have liked to see it become a felony, and we hope that next year we can continue to work towards having it changed to a felony. But we are grateful to Brad for trying to get it changed. We're grateful that anything is happening because they could have just killed it immediately in the committee. In the future, we are hoping to have it changed to a felony."

Touchstone said, "I didn't want to lose the progress that had been made. This bill, in my mind, is a step in the right direction. It's not what should be the final product in my mind."

Touchstone said he plans to keep working for felony charges next legislative session.

"I'm committed to continuing to file this bill in the future, so, hopefully, one day Mississippi will have a law that adequately addresses this issue," Touchstone said. "You know, I don't know how many kids we have to see lose their life due to this issue before Mississippi is ready to take that step."

Charbonneau said, "The main reason we wanted to push the bill is maybe to save a life. We want the public to be aware what can happen, that it is against the law and kids do die. It doesn't seem like the punishment fits the crime to us."