The Pennsylvania Senate unanimously passed legislation yesterday to close a loophole that for years has let repeat drunken drivers legally stay behind the wheel. The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association applauded the passage. “It is always gratifying when the legislature comes together on a bipartisan basis and takes steps to protect the public, and that is exactly what happened here,” said Greg Rowe, the association’s legislative liaison. Gov. Corbett’s office said he would sign the bill. Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery), who sponsored the bill, said he was moved to act by an Inquirer article last month that shed light on the loophole allowing repeat drunken drivers to escape harsh punishment.
The newspaper reported that in numerous cases, prosecutors were hobbled by a 2009 state Supreme Court decision that a driver could not be treated as a repeat offender until being sentenced in a first DUI case. When dealing with chronic offenders who racked up a string of DUI arrests in a short period, prosecutors were sometimes bound by state law to accept deals that would bundle the cases and treat each as a first-time offense.Under the new legislation, judges would consider multiple cases to be repeat offenses even if sentencing had not occurred, triggering harsher penalties.
The newspaper cited the case of Villanova lawyer Joseph Lawless, who had five separate drunken driving arrests in less than a year. He registered exceptionally high levels of intoxication each time. Under state DUI changes adopted in 2003, any defendant with that level of intoxication is supposed to get 90 days in jail for the second offense, and a year in prison for each subsequent conviction. But Lawless was sentenced to 10 days in jail for each case, because each conviction was treated as a first-time offense. Under the new legislation, Lawless would have received a long sentence.