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Law toughens sentences for fatal DUI accidents

The 'Ambriz Act,' named for the late Orange councilman, allows sentences of 15 years to life for drunk or drugged drivers.

October 18, 2007|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

His voice cracking, Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) struggled at a news conference Wednesday speaking about a new law he helped sponsor in honor of a friend who was killed by a driver under the influence of illegal drugs.

The bill, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week, toughens penalties for drivers who kill someone while intoxicated. It is dubbed the Ambriz Act after Steve Ambriz, a popular Orange councilman who had been Spitzer's chief of staff. He died in 2006 when his car was struck head-on by a pickup driven by a woman with methamphetamine and marijuana in her system.

As he held up a crushed mirror from Ambriz's vehicle, Spitzer glanced at Ambriz's widow, Bridget, and the couple's daughter, Kaitlyn, 4, and said, "This is a difficult day for me."

The mirror, he said, is kept in a bag of items he uses when he talks to schoolchildren about the dangers of driving under the influence.

After the May 2006 crash on Santiago Canyon Road in Orange, Spitzer vowed to strengthen existing laws because prosecutors were limited to vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence charges in such street tragedies. That carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

In July, grocery clerk Sara Lyn Ward, 31, who swerved across the center divider in a truck and struck Ambriz's car, was sentenced to 10 years, but could end up serving only five, Spitzer said.

The law, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Nicole Parra (D-Hanford), requires motorists to acknowledge when applying or renewing their license that if a person is killed while they are driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they can be charged with murder.

The law allows prosecutors to admit into evidence the DMV document signed by the driver.

As a result, a motorist who gets behind the wheel while drunk or on drugs and kills someone could receive a 15-years-to-life sentence, Spitzer said. The law goes into effect Jan. 1.

The legislation was among five bills signed by the governor to keep dangerous drivers off the roads.

"Steve was killed by a driver high on methamphetamine," Schwarzenegger said. "When I heard that story, it broke my heart."

Ambriz, a popular figure in Orange, was elected to the City Council in 2002, one of its youngest members.

Orange Mayor Carolyn Cavecche said: "Nothing will ever make up for the loss of Steve for the community." Councilman Denis Bilodeau said his death had "left a big hole our community."

Bridget Ambriz said she supported the law, but its timing left her with mixed emotions. It didn't come in time to incarcerate Ward longer, she said, adding that "in reality my husband did die in vain."

But she quickly added, "that Steve would have appreciated the things" done in his honor.

At Ward's sentencing, Bridget Ambriz said she asked the court to sentence Ward to 10 years.

"It was hard, very hard for me knowing that my daughter won't even be 10 years old when she is released.

"There isn't a day that goes by when me and my daughter don't think about Steve."

david.reyes@latimes.com

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