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When ‘Reform’ Means A Process Of Elimination

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The loud, sharp sound of a siren could be heard in the distance. And almost on cue, Elaine and Paul Miller's focus diverted from their kitchen table to the window looking out at their backyard. As their eyes scanned the perimeter of the outdoors, they both slightly grazed their fingers across the wristbands they wore. 

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The bracelets were black with white lettering reading, "Chief Rodney Miller: February 6, 1968 - April 27, 2013." If their son had heard that sound, Paul said, he would have been out the door within seconds to try and help. But now that sound is just a constant reminder that Rodney won't be responding.

"As fire chief that was part of his job," Paul said. "But I think he would have done that anyway. That was just who Rodney was."

"I asked him before why he did that, and Rodney said to me, 'Somebody has to do it. And if you can help somebody in their worst hour of need -- it's worth it."

On April 27, 2013, the Loganville Volunteer Fire Co. was dispatched to Interstate 83 to assist with a crash in Southern York County. The crash victim was an impaired driver and needed serious medical attention. Rodney followed protocol and began to close the highway exit to provide a safe landing area for the medical helicopter.

It was then that a three-time DUI offender drove onto the highway and struck Rodney. He was thrown 130 feet and killed.

"The natural progression in life is you see your grandparents be buried and your parents," Paul said. "But never your children."

Paul and Elaine Miller.jpg

Paul and Elaine Miller (Photo: Submitted)

And while their grief is their own, Elaine said this tragedy that became her family's reality is not unique. In Pennsylvania, about 12,300 DUI crashes occur each year. And of those, 9,000 result in injuries and 333 result in deaths, according to Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving.

Elaine and Paul Miller are co-founders of PAPAID. The group formed with merely four or five families, but now has grown to 25.

The group has promoted several bills designed to reform a state known to have some of the worst DUI laws in the nation. Pennsylvania is ranked the 5th most lenient state for criminal DUI penalties and the most lenient for driving-under-suspension penalties.

Last summer, the group saw the impact of their efforts when a law went into effect requiring first-time offenders to have ignition interlock devices installed in their vehicles.

This past Monday, the group was in Harrisburg lobbying for a more specific cause. Repeat DUI offenders are responsible for approximately 40 percent of all DUI-related fatalities, according to recent studies. And that is the group PAPAID is now targeting.

"These are not isolated incidents -- this is not a onetime thing for these offenders," Paul said with his hand forming into a fist. "They choose time and time again to drive drunk, and that is not acceptable. If our state officials value human life, then they need to make that clear. We take these roads every day, our loved ones take these roads every day, they need to be safe."

Senate Bill 961 -- supported primarily by Republican state senators John Rafferty and Scott Martin -- takes several steps toward imposing stricter penalties on repeat DUI offenders.

Breaking down the bill

The bill is making its way through the state Capitol and passed the Senate, 45-4, back in April. Now it's waiting for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

"We have drawn the line and said 'no more is this acceptable in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,'" Rafferty said.

Martin said one of the main criticisms of the state's DUI law is that there is no felony charge for driving under the influence. Pennsylvania is one of only four states that does not classify repeat DUI offenses as a felony, regardless of their prior history, along with Maryland, Maine and New Jersey.

"We have people on their fourth, fifth DUI and it's still a misdemeanor," Martin said. "That's not OK. It's frustrating, and it's preventable."

Currently, state  sentencing guidelines say if you kill someone while driving under the influence, you serve three years for each person killed. This means that the number of years you serve does not increase, so even if a second- or third-time offender kills someone while driving under the influence, they will serve only three years.

This bill would make a fourth DUI a felony. Third-time offenders would face a felony charge if their blood-alcohol content was 0.16 or higher on the third offense, or if all three DUI charges were within 10 years. 

Paul said if only some of these laws had been in place before, things could have turned out so differently for so many of the parents who are a part of PAPAID.

More: 

DUIs are now Pa.'s most common crime

Sitting at their kitchen table, Paul and Elaine looked over a sheet of paper with the pictures of 29 lives lost to DUI offenders, all loved ones of those in the group. Of those, 25 were killed by "high risk" offenders. These high-risk offenders included individuals with repeat DUI offenses, a BAC over 0.15, or also were under the influence of drugs.

The current BAC limit to drive in Pennsylvania is 0.08 percent. 

"If our legislators can -- in breakneck speed -- pass a felony of the third degree for animal cruelty as they did last year," Paul said, "where do we, the human race, fit in to this when we don't have a felony of third degree for repeat DUI offenders?"

Minimum sentences would also be increased for repeat DUI offenders who cause fatal crashes from a three-year sentence to five-year minimum if the person had one prior DUI, and a seven-year minimum if the person two or more previous offenses.

The bill would also increase penalties for people who drive with a suspended license after being convicted of a DUI.

"Does this capture all of our wants? No," Paul said. "But we're going to take one step at a time and try to get some meaningful change."

What's next

Martin said legislation related to DUI laws has been hard to push in the past largely due to a shift in agendas among the state's policymakers, or hesitation to put more people in prison.

Elaine said the stigma surrounding DUI drivers is that people perceive them only as someone having "one too many." She said therefore, people believe counseling and rehabilitation is the answer rather than serious convictions and prison sentences.

"That's not the case," Elaine said. "These people have been offered the counseling, they have been given the second chance. It eventually isn't an accident anymore."

Elaine and Paul said they have continued to get positive feedback from the legislators they have met, but there is no identification of a timeline.

"As we've learned over the past three years, changing legislation in Harrisburg is a process that moves very slowly," Elaine said.

The hope for Senate Bill 961 is that it be passed before the end of the year, Martin said. Once it reaches the governor's desk, he said he has no reason not to think it will.

"There's a saying that 'If I steal a pen three times in Pennsylvania, it's a felony,'" Martin said. "'But if I commit a DUI it's only a felony after I kill someone.'"

"On an issue like this it's so critically important," Martin said. "We just need to get it done."

 

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record


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Source : http://www.witf.org/news/2018/06/families-of-those-killed-by-repeat-dui-drivers-demand-strict-laws.php

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