Push Renewed for Tougher Hit-and-Run Penalties

Wilkes-Barre – Luzerne County legislators and the District Attorney are joining in a renewed effort to increase the minimum mandatory sentence for drivers who fatally hit an individual and then flee the scene.

Efforts to close the 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.

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.

Senate Bill 1079 sponsored by Sen. Lisa Baker (R-20) and House Bill 1422 sponsored by Rep. Mike Carroll (D-118) would increase the mandatory minimum penalty from one year to three years for fleeing the scene of an accident where a death resulted.  A third measure is also being introduced by Rep. Tarah Toohil (R-116).

Baker delivered the following remarks encouraging community action:

When we discuss laws, due process, penalties, sentences, all the legal apparatus of criminal justice, it can seem so clinical and distant.  But when the discussion involves a precious five-year-old killed under devastating circumstances, it is very raw, very emotional and very personal.

We have all been touched by Kevin and his life in some way.  For me, I know his kindergarten teacher, and her sense of loss.  As we grieve with the family, friends, and those who were a part of Kevin’s life in some way, we are inspired by the example of his parents, Stephen and Caroline.  Their advocacy and their generosity of spirit, their determination to give when someone so special has been taken away, this is truly remarkable and restorative and heartwarming.  You are a light amidst the darkness.

The people here today are committed to making sure a dangerous loophole in state law does not go unaddressed until more tragedies occur.

There is no question in this area about the justice and the purpose behind the sentencing changes known as “Kevin’s Law.”  The remedy is simple and appropriate.  Bills have been in since last year, so it is not a new subject.  And this is an issue that has not run into a problem of partisan politics.

Now that the case has been decided and the sentence rendered, the way is cleared for a concerted push on corrective legislation.  In this effort, the importance of public involvement is magnified.  To let state officials know that it is not just one heart-rending tragedy, or a handful, compelling us.  This can happen anytime and anyplace that bad judgment, bad luck, and a fear of consequences cancel out any sense of personal responsibility.

Whether people are signing the petition, writing letters, sending e-mails, making phone calls, it all matters.  We have to give the issue the same priority and urgency in other parts of the state that we feel here.  Whatever area residents choose to do in advocacy, whatever local officials do directly or indirectly to advance the issue, none of it is time misspent or effort misdirected.

Our challenge comes in two ways: there is a short window for legislative action this year, with competition from a lot of must-do and controversial issues, and there is significant opposition to overcome.  Many legislators have sworn off new or increased mandatory sentences, because of soaring correctional costs.  So this may require some intensive persuasion and creative lawmaking to get a bill into law.

What matters to us is not which bill gets to the governor’s desk, or what legislative avenue we have to resort to.  What matters is that we deliver the result, to save the lives of victims and to discourage drivers from life-threatening flight.  Kevin’s Law is the appropriate way to honor Kevin Miller’s memory, as well as so many others who have been struck by similar tragedy.

Contact:  Jen Wilson  jwilson@pasen.gov  (570) 675-3931