Stiffer penalties ahead for fatal Pennsylvania hit-and-run accidents
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HARRISBURG -- Drivers soon will face up to 10 years in prison for a fatal hit-and-run accident, but those stiffer penalties will come weeks too late to be enforced in a recent Pittsburgh biking fatality.
On Sept. 4, a law increasing the penalty for fatal hit-and-runs will take effect. Rep. Dave Reed, R-Ind., introduced the bill in response to a 2005 accident in which a 29-year-old Blairsville resident, Sean Pearce, was hit while riding his bike.
The law boosts the maximum sentence for a fatal hit-and-run to 10 years from the current seven. While there is no change to the minimum sentence of one year in prison, the crime has been upgraded from a third-degree offense to a second-degree felony.
"This new law helps us better hold drivers accountable for their actions and hopefully protects individuals from becoming victims in the future," said Todd Brysiak, executive director of the state House Policy Committee, of which Mr. Reed is chairman.
In Pennsylvania last year, there were 11 bicycle deaths and 1,312 injuries, or approximately 1 percent of all traffic fatalities and injuries, according to state crash statistics.
Two accidents happened in Pittsburgh in the past month alone, one of which involved a fatal hit-and-run. James Price, 46, of Homewood was killed while riding his bike on Penn Avenue in Point Breeze in late July. Police are still investigating the accident in the hopes of finding the driver.
"Unfortunately James Price's crash -- when he died from the early morning hit-and-run -- is still within the window before the law takes effect, so that it won't govern what happens if they catch the perpetrator," said Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, an advocacy group that worked with legislators to increase the penalties.
Kevin McCarthy, an assistant district attorney for Allegheny County, said that, knowing the penalty will increase to 10 years, the judge may be compelled to give the driver who hit Mr. Price a longer sentence within the current seven-year maximum.
That's contingent on the driver being caught. "I hate to say it, but sometimes we don't catch people," Mr. McCarthy said.
Regardless of the chance that a driver won't get caught, he recommended that drivers stop in the event that they can save the victim's life and face a lesser punishment.
"Your best option is to surrender," Mr. McCarthy said. "Anyone who flees is always going to be treated more harshly."
When the driver flees a fatal accident, the penalty can be much harsher under the new law than if they stayed at the scene.
According to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing guidelines, a driver who fatally hits someone can fall into two sentencing categories: gross negligence or carelessness. The latter receives a mandatory $500 fine. The former is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison.
An example of gross negligence, Mr. McCarthy said, would be driving at excessive speeds. Talking on a cell phone or being distracted by the radio may be viewed as a more minor act of carelessness.
A driver under the influence who remains at the scene of a fatal accident would be punishable by a minimum of three years per victim with a maximum of 10 years in prison.
One fluke in the law is that a drunken driver could get a shorter sentence by at least two years by leaving the scene, sobering up and admitting the crime later, based on minimum sentencing requirements.
Mr. McCarthy said there is room for state lawmakers to further close the gap between what sober and intoxicated drivers face for committing a hit-and-run, but that it makes sense not to entirely equate the two offenses.
"I think that's a recognition by the Legislature that we still have to prove someone's culpability," he said. "We can't make the sentences for a fatal DUI hit and a fatal hit-and-run equal because we have to prove they're drunk to dole out a bigger penalty."
Pittsburgh police said the law will help them penalize drunk drivers who sobered up and turned themselves in later.
"It's nice to know that we have a better penalty the judge can use when we know we have someone who was drunk and just got away," said Sgt. Daniel Connolly. who oversees the city's accident investigations.
For the families of the victims, though, the changing penalty offers little consolation.
"A life is a life," said Glenice Price, Mr. Price's mother. "My son is gone."
First Published August 13, 2012 12:00 am