Legislation calling for stronger DUI-related penalties could pass this week

HARRISBURG, Pa. --- According to the Pennsylvania DUI Association, there were 10,346 alcohol-related crashes and 293 fatalities in alcohol-related crashes in 2017.

Senate Bill 961 aims to reduce some of those numbers.

Senator John Rafferty, Jr. (R-Berks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties), the primary sponsor of the bill, said the legislation is "sending a message...that we're not going to put up with this anymore in Pennsylvania."

The bill proposes some of the following changes:

  • Create a felony DUI for someone convicted of their third DUI with a BAC of. 16 or higher, refusal to breath or chemical testing, and drugged driving. It would include anyone convicted of their fourth DUI.
  • Increasing penalties for repeat offenders who are not properly licensed or under suspension. The current penalty is a $500 fine and 60 to 90 days in jail. Senate Bill 961 increases the penalty on a second offense to a $1,000 fine and at least 90 days in jail. Three or more offenses would by a $2,500 fine and at least six months in jail.
  • Prohibit the adult driver required to accompany a person driving on a learners permit from being impaired to a degree that they endanger themselves or others.
  • Increase the minimum term of imprisonment for someone who, unintentionally, kills another person while driving under the influence. Currently in Pennsylvania, if a person hits and kills someone while driving under the influence, the penalty is a minimum of three years in jail, no matter how many prior DUI convictions. Senate Bill 961 increases that number to five years in jail if that person has a prior DUI conviction. It increases to seven years if the offender has two or more prior DUIs.

“Number one, they are deterrent. Number two, if you are stupid enough and reckless enough to do this, you’re going to pay for the consequences. It would also help the families of the victims, knowing that person would spend a longer time in jail,” said Sen. Rafferty.

Missy Sweitzer’s 20-year old son, Zachery, was killed in November 2008 after getting into a crash with an impaired driver.

She says the legislation holds impaired drivers more accountable for their actions.

“For first time offenders, if you want to chalk that up as your mistake, go ahead, I’ll give that to you. But there’s a saying that you can’t make the same mistake twice because the second time, it’s a decision. For those who drive repeatedly again and again and again while under the influence, there needs to be some consequences,” said Sweitzer.

Chris Ferro, a criminal defense attorney, said while he "generally agrees" with enhancing penalties for repeat offenders, he doesn’t think mandatory sentences will solve the "DUI problem."

“Addiction is a powerful force and it doesn’t necessarily get canceled out by legislation,” said Ferro.

He said he believes additional and mandatory treatment, ankle monitors or probation supervision will help those he calls “good people struggling with addiction.”

“What we as a community have to look at is how do we treat DUI offenders, how do we treat alcoholism, how do we treat dependency as opposed to just continually enhancing and ramping up criminal penalties,” said Ferro.

Rafferty said he expects the bill to move through the House in the next day or so, in which he said he will recommend concurrence and send the bill to Governor Tom Wolf's desk.

The deadline for any bills to pass this sessions is this Wednesday, October 17.

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