Law” Headed to the Governor
July 1, 2014
HARRISBURG – The state Senate today
approved a bill to increase the minimum mandatory sentence for drivers who
fatally hit an individual and then flee the scene, according to Sen. Lisa Baker
Homicide by vehicle while DUI
carries a three-year mandatory minimum, but leaving the scene of an accident
involving death has only a one-year mandatory minimum.
SB 1312 was
amended in the House of Representatives to increase the penalty from one year
to three years for fleeing the scene of an accident where a death resulted.
Efforts to close this loophole have
come to be known as “Kevin’s Law” in memory of five-year-old Kevin Miller who
was killed in a hit-and-run crash in December 2012. His death was one of
five similar incidents occurring in Luzerne County that year. In each
case, the driver fled the scene.
The bill now heads to the governor
to be signed into law.
Baker delivered the following floor
remarks encouraging an affirmative vote:
“Every parent’s worst nightmare –
the loss of their beloved child – to illness or injury. Nothing can ease
the pain of such a tragedy. Imagine losing your child at the hands of a
hit-and-run driver who flees the scene and fails to take responsibility.
This is the real-life nightmare of
Caroline and Stephen Miller of Dallas, and Al and Ann Marie Vannucchi of
Plains, who are here with us today. Both couples share this unfortunate
distinction with countless other Pennsylvania families.
The discrepancy in minimum mandatory
sentences between DUI homicide-by-vehicle offenses and hit-and-run violations
is an all-too-familiar subject of debate. Unfortunately, in the absence
of an effective remedy, we continue to accumulate infuriating evidence of how
this legal incentive to flee is hurting the families of victims and assisting
lawbreakers, the complete opposite of what criminal justice is supposed to
do. An effort to fix this several years ago went partway, but not far
enough. Today, we have the chance to approve a more substantial solution.
The story behind the sentencing
portion of this bill is one of painful tragedy, a notorious flaw in state law,
and incredible advocacy efforts by grieving families and a supportive
Eighteen months ago, five-year-old
Kevin Miller was killed, in the presence of his family, by an impaired driver
who fled the scene. It is hard for us to grasp how emotionally
devastating this was. A friend of mine was Kevin’s teacher. Linda
relates how much Kevin loved school, his eagerness to learn, his pride in
finishing his schoolwork, his love of singing Disney tunes, his joy at doing
art projects, especially ones involving his favorite color of yellow. He
was the kind of kid who lit up a room. His loss was hard on his
classmates, who also saw Kevin’s twin Christopher struggle to cope.
Seven years ago, 19-year-old Erik
Vannucchi was struck down, in front of his girlfriend, while they waited for
his motorcycle to be towed. He was able to push the tow truck driver to
safety, but Erik did not survive his injuries. The driver was found
eleven hours later. Although she admitted she had been drinking, the
delay in her arrest prevented prosecutors from seeking DUI charges.
We often hear that legislating by
anecdote is not good practice. But these are not just theoretical policy
debates we engage in here. These are real people – just like Kevin Miller and
Erik Vannucchi. How state laws affect families and communities is an
extremely important consideration.
These are not the only hit-and-run
fatalities in our area, and other members have related horrific incidents in
different parts of the state. The determination and willpower of Caroline
Miller have made a difference. Her unrelenting persistence and non-stop
advocacy have taken this issue from nowhere on the agenda to verging on becoming
law. She mobilized a lot of folks into signing petitions, sending
e-mails, and making calls demanding action. The families and their
friends are here to witness our action, to be assured that Kevin and Erik are
much more than another statistic in criminal justice debates.
I understand that bills setting or
increasing mandatory minimum sentences are in disfavor these days, because of
prison crowding and soaring correctional costs. Those are legitimate
fiscal concerns, but they cannot justify keeping a perverse injustice as part
of state law.
There is something of a mythology
about hit-and-run drivers making a panic-induced mistake in judgment.
Nothing in Kevin’s case resembles that. The crime occurred December 21,
2012. Two days later, the suspected driver denied and lied to
investigators. An arrest did not come until early April. A guilty
plea was not rendered until the following March. As much as this delay
added to the pain, so did cruel suggestions that attempted to shift the
blame. And now, in a final affront, the 2-5 year sentence the judge
imposed, which much of the community thought was too light, is being
appealed. The appeal comes wrapped in antagonizing words such as improper
and unfair. No responsibility, no remorse, just an unwarranted reach for
Every aspect of these tragedies
impeaches current law. The core concern is something we can correct by
approving this bill – the law must not reward callous disregard for lives and
ethical decision making. For people to have full faith and reliance in
our criminal justice system, we must be willing to act to fix injustices within
the system. If through this simple change we can save others from the
tragic circumstances that claimed Kevin Miller, Erik Vannucchi, and many others
across the state, Pennsylvania will be a better place.