Father, Police Chief Weigh In On State’s Tougher DUI Laws

December 27, 2018

Joe Clifford lost his son, Chris, in a drunk driving crash nearly 20 years ago and became an advocate for tougher driving under the influence laws. He feels the new penalties for high-risk offenders that took effect on Sunday are a significant step up from the last major change a decade ago. “As parents that lost a son in a DUI fatality, we definitely support the law,” Clifford said. As state chair for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, he witnessed the pain and suffering families experience after losing a loved one to a DUI crash as he and his wife, Lily, dealt with their own grief. “Our visit with Chris this holiday is in the cemetery. That’s painful,” Clifford said. “That pain continues 20 years later.” The new law increases penalties for those who continue to drive impaired and those with a DUI-related suspended license. The changes under Act 153 include a felony penalty for a third-time DUI conviction within 10 years if the third offense is with a blood-alcohol content of 0.16 or higher, and in all other cases at a fourth offense. Pennsylvania was one of only four states that did not treat DUI as a felony, regardless of the number of prior DUI convictions, according to Pennsylvania Parents Against Impaired Driving. Another change is an increased minimum sentence for homicide by vehicle while DUI for those with a prior drunk driving conviction. Homicide by vehicle while DUI currently carries a three-year minimum sentence. Now, under the changes, the minimum sentence with a prior conviction is five years, and seven years with more than two prior convictions. There are also increased penalties for various offenses associated with driving illegally while under a DUI-related license suspension. Over 100,000 DUI offenders in Pennsylvania are subject to this new law, with an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 first-time DUI offenders being added to this group on an annual basis, according to PAPAID. Sugarloaf Twp. police Chief Josh Winters said the new penalties don’t affect the way police charge people with the crime, but they will impact the lives of people who continue to drink and drive. The effect is equally as risky as drunk driving itself, he said. “You’re literally taking your life in your hands,” Winters said. His message remains the same, especially through the holiday season: “Don’t drink and drive. It’s not worth it.” Winters is seeing a change when his department participates in DUI checkpoints in the area. More people are designating a driver or calling a cab, he said. Officers now see sober drivers and not-so-sober passengers, he said. Clifford suggests people have a plan if they are going out to holiday parties or gatherings. “Enjoy yourself, but have a plan,” he said. “It’s that simple. Think about how am I going to get home.” Clifford believes that there is a culture change regarding drunk driving, just as there has been a culture shift toward smoking. The number of DUI incidents will continue drop with stricter laws, education and people changing their behavior, he said. “My desire is to never have to use (the new) law because there are no fatalities to DUI,” Clifford said. “I don’t want to see people get killed.” Contact the writer: kmonitz@standardspeaker.com; 570-501-3589

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