Pennsylvania legislators are moving forward with a bill that will impose stiffer penalties on repeat drunk driving offenders if they kill someone while driving under the influence.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 45 to 4 to send Bill 961 to the House.
Current law gives a mandatory three-year prison term to a drunk driver that kills someone. Under the new bill, that would increase to five years for a repeat drunk driver and seven if the driver had two or more previous drunk driving convictions.
A consecutive prison term will be imposed for each victim.
According to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Rafferty of Montgomery County, one-third of all drivers who are arrested or convicted of drunk driving have previous convictions.
The bill also increases the penalty for certain DUI repeat offenders to a felony in the third degree. This includes those who have been arrested for a third DUI and have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.16 percent or higher, who have refused to submit to a blood, breath, or urine test, or who drove under the influence of drugs.
Currently in Pennsylvania, there is no felony grade for DUI, no matter how many convictions a person has.
Additionally, improperly licensed drivers will face harsher penalties under the new law, when it passes. Currently, the fine for a DUI is $500, and the jail sentence is 60 to 90 days. Bill 961 calls for a fine of $1,000 for a second arrest and a jail sentence of at least 90 days, and for subsequent arrests, a fine of $2,500 and a jail sentence of at least six months.
Parents Against Drunk Driving has stated that Pennsylvania’s drunk driving laws are among the most lenient in the country.
Drunk driving convictions have always had life-altering consequences, but now, those penalties will be even more harsh, especially for those who kill someone. In addition to being haunted the rest of their lives for killing someone, they’ll do a big chunk of it in prison. They’ll have huge fines to pay, with court costs added to them, and no way to pay until they get out. And then, they can only pay the fines if they can find employment. One decision—to drink and then drive—will lead them to a whole new way of life, and not a very pleasant one.
There are defenses that may help, of course, but if you have killed someone with your car and you were driving drunk, it’s going to be quite the challenge, even for a well-trained attorney with experience. It really comes down to you and the decisions you make. You may not feel drunk, but you can’t base your level of intoxication on your feelings. If you are going to drink, you need to take a cab, or take a designated driver along with you. No one wants to infringe on your good time, but we would like to save you a lifetime of misery.
Update June 11, 2019:
This bill passed in October of 2018. It took effect on December 23, 2018, just in time for holiday traveling.
Called Bill 153, the new law adds language to indicate that drivers operating with a learner’s permit must not be supervised by someone who is intoxicated.
For criminal defense attorneys such as myself, who specialize in DUI law, the new bill could bring about a change in the way we defend our clients. At the very least, many cases will be much more difficult, even if the client has not killed anyone. We will have to work harder to discredit evidence and to get plea deals, when those are the best choice for the client.
I know the new law won’t stop people from drinking and driving, but I hope it gives more people reason to think hard before they do. Having fun with alcohol and drugs is not worth a felony conviction.