Sentencing court is rarely a happy place and it is all the more painful when a criminal defendant stands before a judge to be sentenced for killing another person while driving drunk.
Words of remorse and disbelief are typically voiced by the perpetrators: But for the impairment caused by alcohol, they would not have killed another person and certainly had no intent to do so, is the familiar refrain.
But to victims' surviving loved ones, the question of intent is often not clear cut, especially in the case of repeat DUI offenders, who choose again and again to drink and drive, even after multiple arrests and court penalties that, in some cases, included treatment.
For long years, the charge of homicide by vehicle while DUI to many victims in Pennsylvania failed to adequately address such crimes. It carried a three-year minimum sentence, regardless of whether it was a repeat offense, creating a legal landscape that stunned and dismayed victims and sometimes frustrated prosecutors and judges.
Thanks to the activism of grieving parents Chris and Susan Demko, whose 18-year-old daughter was killed by a repeat DUI offender in 2014 in Lancaster County, the law now better accounts for the criminality inherent in repeat episodes of drunken driving.
The new law, passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in October, went into effect on Dec. 23. It stiffens the law against repeat offenders on many fronts, including by making all fourth DUI offenses and certain third DUI offenses felonies, ending Pennsylvania's status as one of four states that failed to classify certain repeat DUI offenders as felons.
Significantly, in homicide while DUI cases, it mandates a new mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for DUI offenders with at least one prior DUI conviction and a seven-year minimum for those who have two or more DUI convictions.
Those penalties might still seem lenient given the senseless and avoidable loss of life caused by drunken-driving crashes. But as Chris Demko told Pennlive.com, "At a bare minimum, it's going to take some of the worst offenders off the road for a longer period of time." As the Demkos have noted, repeat offenders are responsible for 40 percent of DUI-related fatalities.
As the litany of lives lost in DUI-related crashes in Erie County and statewide — about 300 annually — sadly attests, this is a serious problem.
The stiffer penalties come just as many prepare for New Year's celebrations centered on toasts — or bottles — of bubbly. Have fun, but not at your or others' peril. The price has always been too high and now the law better reflects that truth.