Pennsylvania Drunk Driving Law Update – Mandatory Consecutive Sentencing & Felony Convictions for Repeat DUI Offenders
Our criminal defense lawyers represent individuals charged with drunk driving in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Both states have strict laws regarding drunk driving. While New Jersey classifies drunk driving (driving while intoxicated (DWI)) as a traffic offense, Pennsylvania defines it as a criminal offense in its vehicle code. With that said, both states impose mandatory minimum sentencing for drunk driving, but recently Pennsylvania updated its drunk driving statute to increase penalties for motorists who have multiple DUI convictions.
How did Pennsylvania’s drunk driving law change and why did it change?
The new law took effect in November 2021 and increased penalties for offenders who receive third or subsequent drunk driving convictions. The law increases the grading of a drunk driving offense from a misdemeanor to a felony offense and was created after the tragic death of Deana Eckman. Eckman was killed following a head on collision with a drunk driver in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania created the law because the driver in this situation had recently received the state prison sentence which he was serving concurrently following his 5th DUI conviction. A concurrent sentence means at the same time. So, in this situation the driver would have received consecutive sentences under the new law and would not have been on the street. It not only increases the grading for certain repeat DUI offenders from a misdemeanor to a felony offense, it ensures consecutive sentences are imposed to certain repeat DUI offenders. The law also requires substance monitoring program evaluations for repeat DUI offenders as a condition of probation, parole, or bail.
The drunk driver who killed Ms. Eckman pled guilty to third-degree murder, homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, and a related felony crimes and was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison.
It is important to understand that while a drunk driving offense usually subjects a person to a county jail sentence, there are situations where it can increase to aggravated assault by DUI or even homicide. Keep in mind that third degree murder is the lowest form of homicide and does not result in a mandatory life sentence, unlike first and second degree murder.
Homicide By Drunk Driving in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, the crime of homicide by a vehicle while driving under the influence is defined in Title 75 § 3735. In that section any person who unintentionally causes the death of another person as the result of violating § 3802 (driving under the influence or controlled substances) and who is convicted of violating § 3802 is guilty of criminal homicide by vehicle.
This crime is a felony of the second degree and carries with it a mandatory minimum three (3) year state prison sentence. That sentence is consecutive (one after the other) for each victim who was killed because of an incident. Criminal homicide by DUI consists of three elements: 1) driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance, 2) death of another person, 3) the death occurred as the result of the driving under the influence.
Criminal homicide by DUI requires that a person actually be convicted of DUI to be guilty of the more serious offense of homicide. If the person is not convicted he or she can’t be convicted of the homicide. § 3735, however, doesn’t require that the prosecution prove that the defendant had a particular blood alcohol content (BAC) at the time that he drove the car.
The prosecution can meet its burden of proof through direct and circumstantial evidence such as witness testimony regarding observations of the driver before and after the incident and the testimony of accident reconstruction experts. If you don’t understand direct and circumstantial evidence, read my previous article on this important topic.
While the prosecution isn’t required to prove the BAC level it must establish beyond a reasonable doubt a causal connection between the driver’s intoxication and the accident which resulted in death. In Pennsylvania an accused’s actions are the legal cause of death if they are the direct and substantial factor in bringing about it. In DUI homicide cases the most common types of evidence is eye witness testimony and a testimony of accident reconstruction experts.
In addition to proving that the driver’s actions caused the person’s death the prosecution must also establish proof of criminal negligence beyond a reasonable doubt. Criminal negligence is the criminal intent element of the homicide DUI (mens rea). In Pennsylvania criminal negligence is defined as a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the actual situation. If the prosecution can establish criminal negligence beyond a reasonable doubt the person can’t be convicted of homicide by DUI. If you have questions about DUI give our office a call and read my book 5 Ways to Fight & Win Your Pennsylvania DUI Case.
Pennsylvania – Aggravated Assault by Vehicle while DUI
Under this section of the Pennsylvania traffic code (Title 75), any person who negligently causes serious bodily injury to another as the result of a violation of section 3802 commits a felony of the 2nd degree. Unlike homicide by DUI there is no mandatory minimum sentence for this felony offense.
In addition to DUI felony related offenses, there are also traffic offenses involving homicide and aggravated assault which are graded as felony offenses in Pennsylvania. Under section 3732, a person is guilty of Homicide by Vehicle when he or she recklessly, or with gross negligence, causes the death of another person while in operation or in use of a vehicle. This offense is graded as a felony of the 3rd degree (7 year max) and there is no mandatory minimum associated with this offense. Under section 3732.1, a person is guilty of aggravated assault by vehicle when this person recklessly, or with gross negligence, causes serious bodily injury to another person while engaged in the operation of a motor vehicle. This is also graded as a felony of the 3rd degree and carries with it no mandatory minimum sentencing.
What is Murder in Pennsylvania and New Jersey?
Murder is the more serious category and it is separated by 3 degrees in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Murder of the 1st degree is a criminal homicide committed by an intentional act. While murder of the 2nd degree is committed when a homicide occurs while a defendant or his or her accomplice is engaged in committing a felony crime such as robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, arson, kidnapping, or rape. (See 18 § 2502 – Pennsylvania; 2C: 11-3 – New Jersey).
While New Jersey does not specifically differentiate between murders of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree within its crimes code, it does define the types of murder similarly to Pennsylvania. New Jersey defines all murder as a crime of the 1st degree which is the most serious offense in New Jersey. Murder which results from an intentional act (murder of the 1st degree in Pennsylvania) carries with it a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Murder of the 2nd degree in Pennsylvania also carries with it a life sentence. While murder of the 3rd degree in Pennsylvania carries with it a maximum sentence of 40 years of state incarceration.
Murder of the 2nd degree is felony murder in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and so, the principle actor and his or her accomplice face a potential life sentence if convicted of this crime. It is irrelevant if either the principle or the accomplices intended or set out to kill anyone during the commission of the felony.
What to do if you’re charged with drunk driving in Pennsylvania or New Jersey?
If you’re charged with drunk driving in Pennsylvania or New Jersey it is important that you consult with a qualified criminal defense lawyer who can advise you of your rights. Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey have drunk driving statutes which include, felony level offenses for aggravated assault by DUI and homicide by DUI. Homicide by DUI in Pennsylvania carries a mandatory minimum of three (3) years state prison sentence. In this situation, however, the driver who killed Eckman was so reckless that the prosecution included the charge of third degree murder due to the reckless nature of his conduct. While murder typically involves intentionality, third degree murder contains an element which only requires the prosecution to prove recklessness. If the prosecution can establish recklessness, it will lead to a conviction and a substantial state prison term.
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