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 (R-20).
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 community.
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 victimhood.
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.