WILKES-BARRE - Some prosecutors and politicians are calling for changes in Pennsylvania laws that they say may be encouraging drivers to flee the scene of an accident if they have been drinking.
Under current law, they say, people convicted of driving under the influence in a fatal accident face a mandatory minimum prison sentence of three years - but those who leave the scene and are caught after the alcohol has left their system usually can only be charged with fleeing the scene, which carries a one-year minimum term.
Luzerne County First Assistant District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce told The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice recently that "there still remains an incentive to flee if you had been drinking prior to the accident."
He says officials feel that the mandatory minimum sentence for hit-and-run convictions should not only be equal to but higher than that for driving under the influence in a fatal crash.
Last year, state Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, proposed increasing the mandatory minimum penalty for hit-and-run drivers to three years, but he says some state senators objected, saying mandatory minimum terms lead to overcrowded prisons.
In a compromise, that charge - officially known as accidents involving death or personal injury -was made a second-degree felony rather than a third-degree felony with a maximum term of 10 rather than seven years, but the one-year mandatory minimum term remained the same.
Sanguedolce said the change will likely have no effect for offenders with little or no criminal history, since sentencing guidelines factor in criminal history as well as the gravity of the offense.
"The maximum sentence may be so far away from the standard range that the judge would not reach it," he said.
Sen. Mike Stack, D-Philadelphia, has long proposed legislation that would raise mandatory minimums for hit-and-run convictions from one to five years. An aide to Stack told the paper last week that he would reintroduce a proposal to impose a mandatory one-year minimum sentence for a hit-and-run that results in serious injury and a three-year minimum term for leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
Diane Velikis, 53, of Pringle, whose sister was killed in a hit-and-run accident, said she can't understand how drivers can flee after hitting someone, leaving them there to die.
"I can't wrap my head around it, how they could keep going. I understand they didn't mean to do it. But what they do mean to do is run so they don't get caught. They should go to prison," Velikis said.