In April of 2018, the PA State Senate voted 45-4 to approve Senate Bill 961, which would change the PA Motor Vehicle Code under Title 75 to increase penalties for DUI offenders, and those who drive on suspended licenses. Although this bill is still awaiting approval in the House, it is strongly anticipated that it will pass and be signed into law. This article is designed to highlight some of the differences in penalties between current Pennsylvania law and the law if SB 961 is approved.
Driving on a DUI Suspended or Revoked License
The biggest impact of this law will be on the treatment of those who drive on suspended licenses. Currently, a person who drives on a DUI suspended license who is not a habitual offender faces a summary offense punishable with a mandatory minimum sentence of 60 days of incarceration and a $500 fine, regardless of the number of prior convictions.
Since the DUI Suspended License cases are filed as summary offenses, typically District Attorneys offices are not involved in proceedings until the Summary Appeals phase, which allows significant latitude to negotiate pleas before the Magisterial District Courts. That will soon change, as the following modifications would apply:
- Second Conviction for 75 Pa.C.S. 1543(b): Grading remains a summary offense carrying a mandatory 90 day jail sentence and a $1000 fine. This change increases the mandatory minimum sentence by 30 days and adds $500 to the total fine.
- Third or Subsequent Conviction for 75 Pa.C.S. 1543(b): Increases the grading to a 3rd Degree Misdemeanor with a mandatory minimum jail sentence of 6 months in jail and a mandatory $2,500 fine. This modification turns the violation into a criminal matter, increases the mandatory minimum sentence by 4 months, and the mandatory fine by $2,000.
The current DUI Penalties can be found here. Under current Pennsylvania Law, the highest graded offense that an offender will face is a 1st Degree Misdemeanor punishable by a maximum sentence of 5 years. Under SB 961, an offender will be charged with a 3rd Degree Felony punishable by a maximum sentence of 7 years if:
- It is the offender's 4th DUI Offense;
- It is the offender's 3rd DUI Offense if charged with a Highest Tier DUI for Drugs, having a BAC exceeding a .16%, refusing a breath test, or refusing a blood draw if requested pursuant to a warrant, court order, or other constitutional basis; or
- The offender has a prior Homicide by Vehicle While DUI conviction.
It does not appear that SB 961 impacts the mandatory minimum jail sentences applicable to 3rd and 4th offenses, but merely modifies the grading from an M1 to an F3.
Homicide by Vehicle while DUI and Non-DUI
Current law treats a Homicide by Vehicle While DUI offense as a 2nd Degree Felony with a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 3 years. Under SB 961, for those with one prior DUI (includes convictions, acceptance of ARD, acceptance of a consent decree, or juvenile adjudication), the grading of the offense will be enhanced to a 1st Degree Felony with a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 5 years. If the offender had two or more prior DUI offenses (includes convictions, acceptance of ARD, acceptance of a consent decree, or juvenile adjudication), the offender faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 7 years.
For a Homicide By Vehicle offense not involving DUI, the court may, but is not required to, sentence an offender who is convicted of HBV and a Driving Without a License under Section 1501 or Driving on a Suspended License under Section 1543 to an additional 5 years of incarceration. The bill also calls for sentencing guideline enhancements when a person operated their vehicle without a license.
Aggravated Assault by Vehicle While DUI and non-DUI
Whether it's an Aggravated Assault by Vehicle While DUI under Section 3735.1 or an Aggravated Assault by Vehicle under Section 3732.1, the court may, but is not required to, sentence an offender who is also convicted of Driving Without a License under Section 1501 or Driving on a Suspended License under Section 1543 to an additional 2 years of incarceration. The bill also calls for sentencing guideline enhancements when a person operated their vehicle without a license.
Accident Involving Death or Injury While Not Properly Licensed
Under current law, Section 3742.1 of the Vehicle Code only punishes an individual who is not properly licensed and causes an accident resulting in injury or death to another. If the accident causes serious bodily injury or death, the offense is graded as a 3rd Degree Felony. All other injuries qualify for a 2nd Degree Misdemeanor grading.
However, SB 961 would modify the law to punish unlicensed drivers who both cause accidents, and those who are involved in accidents through no fault of their own. If a driver who is unlicensed is involved in an accident, and the driver didn't cause the accident, the driver will now be charged with a 3rd Degree Misdemeanor if anyone else involved suffered serious bodily injury, or a 2nd Degree Misdemeanor if anyone died as a result of the accident. Put simply - an unlucky unlicensed driver who is involved in an accident through no fault of their own will now face criminal charges if someone was injured.
The media focus on this law deals with the addition of felony DUI charges and enhanced mandatory penalties for Homicide by Vehicle offenders. However, the most significantly impacted segment of society will be those whose licenses are suspended because they cannot afford to pay DUI court costs. These individuals will continue to see their fines and penalties increase substantially if this bill is signed into law.