The Pennsylvania Senate Majority Policy Committee held a hearing on Monday, May 13th, seeking public input on new DUI laws.
The hearing was motivated after a fatal DUI related crash in February. The crash occurred around 9:30 p.m. on February 16th, Deana and Chris Eckman were driving on Route 452 in Upper Chichester, when David Strowhouer’s pickup truck crossed a double yellow line and slammed head-on into their car.
Authorities report that Strowhouer’s blood alcohol level was 0.199 and there were traces of cocaine, diazepam, and marijuana in his system. Court records showed that Strowhouer suffered five prior DUI’s in the last nine years and was on probation at the time of the crash.
Senator Tom Killion, a member of the committee, addressed the hearing, “Since the accident, everyone has been asking the same questions. How could this happen? How could someone who had already had five DUI’s once again get behind the wheel while intoxicated and end someone’s life, and what can we do to prevent this from happening again?”
Deana’s parents had done their homework and came to the hearing with some of the state’s DUI related data. One of them being that the minimum sentences for repeat offenses remain at one year and early release on “good-time” credit is a normal occurrence. As in Strowhouer’s case, a 2017 DUI incident gave him both his fourth and fifth DUI’s. He was given a total sentence of 18 to 36 months in state prison as his sentences were concurrent, rather than consecutive. Strowhouer’s arrest following the crash with the Eckmans would be his sixth DUI.
Deana’s father, Richard DeRosa, stressed that real change can only come from technological changes to the system, such as the Driver Alcohol Detection System (DADSS) which works to immobilize the vehicle when it detects that the driver is over the 0.08 percent legal blood alcohol concentration limit. Others, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving representative Debbie D’Addona, suggested items such as the SCRAM continuous alcohol monitoring bracelet, which notifies law enforcement when those monitored imbibe.
According to Chris Demko of Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving, state statistics showed that 300 people are killed every year by drunk drivers in the state and that around 40% of that number involve repeat offenders.
Killion noted that there is a hope for more focus on repeat offenders with repeated high blood alcohol contents and that it was necessary to change the public perception of an initial DUI from “something that is not a big deal to a wake-up call.”
Delaware County District Attorney Katayoun Copeland was open to the idea of implementing more technology to monitor parolees and probationers, and assured that the ideas would be explored further, but also noted that the committee has made progress in the last few years.
The committee’s push for harsher penalties resulted in a new homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence law which carries a mandatory minimum seven-year prison sentence. Although it was small consolation to the family of the Eckmans, Strowhouer was the first person in Delaware County to be charged under the new law.
Copeland also suggested during the hearing that additional laws be enacted in the current session, such as increasing minimum penalties to two or more years for repeat third tier offenders and removing the possibility for early release for repeat offenders.
Given Pennsylvania’s current statistical profile when it comes to DUI’s, it’s no wonder many in the public believe DUI offenders, including repeat offenders, are getting the benefit of the doubt. While I am all for giving someone a second chance, at some point it must be acknowledged that a problem exists when a person suffers multiple DUI offenses with a particularly high blood alcohol content.
Thus, several questions are begged: How do lawmakers address the problem of repeat DUI offenders? Do they punish more severely with the hope of a deterrent effect? Or do they try to keep drunk drivers off the road from the get-go?
DeRosa and D’Addona’s wish to implement more technology also comes with a price, literally. Those items are costly. Will the offenders be able to pay for them? DeRosa suggested during the hearing that Pennsylvania start requiring all new vehicles have the DADSS system installed. That’s nice, but not all of these offenders will be driving a brand-new car. Someone who is driving a 30-year-old clunker is just as likely to have too much to drink.