In one part of Pennsylvania, the judiciary abandoned an experimental DUI docket while in another part of the state, the Pennsylvania Senate approved a bill mandating all first-time DUI offenders to install ignition interlock devices in their cars.
Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, a bustling suburb of Philadelphia just 30 miles outside of the city, is home to some of the highest DUI arrest rates in the state. Approximately 2,337 individuals were prosecuted by the Montgomery County Office of the District Attorney in the past year for driving under the influence. Pennsylvania’s DUI law defines driving under the influence as driving, operating, or maintaining physical control over a car (1) while under the influence of a controlled substance, or (2) with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or higher.
To combat the influx of DUI cases coming into Montgomery County, the court began a special DUI pilot program that created a DUI-only court docket assigned to one judge. This was intended to create uniformity in the handling of DUI cases and to free up judicial resources for other criminal trials. Because about one-third of all incoming cases are DUI cases, the lone judge, Judge Cheryl Austin, was overwhelmed. In just 2014, she tried 1,250 DUI bench trials and oversaw 1,087 settlements. The court has now abandoned this failed experiment and reverted back to spreading all DUI cases out amongst criminal division judges evenly. The District Attorney’s Office had praised the pilot program for speeding up the resolution of many DUI cases, while public defenders often complained that the pilot program resulted in harsher sentences for their clients.
However, Pennsylvania is in fact known for having some of the lightest punishments for DUI offenders. A WalletHub survey conducted across all states ranked Pennsylvania 49th for its lax sentences. While a strict state like Arizona has mandatory jail time and automatic license suspension for some individuals charged with DUI, Pennsylvania only requires a fine for first-time offenders, only makes subsequent violations misdemeanors, and does not require license suspension.
All of that may change shortly. Due to Pennsylvania’s high DUI rates, legislators are looking for ways to crack down on drunk drivers. One approach is currently pending House approval. On September 20, 2015, the Pennsylvania Senate voted to pass a bill that would require first-time DUI arrestees to install ignition interlock devices in their cars. An ignition interlock device requires a driver to blow into a breathalyzer hooked up to the ignition of the car. If the driver is below the legal limit, the driver can start the car. However, if the driver is above the legal limit, not only can the driver not start the car but the authorities are also notified of the violation.
Currently, Pennsylvania DUI law does not mandate that judges order installation of ignition interlock devices for first-time arrestees. First-time offenders face only a fine. The Pennsylvania politicians noticed a drastic decrease of up to 33% in deaths caused by drunk driving in states like Arizona with harsher DUI punishments including automatic interlock ignition device installation. The Pennsylvania Senate hopes this bill will deter driving under the influence more so than other less effective measures like license suspension. The bill will need to be approved by the House, then signed by the Governor before it becomes law.
If you were charged with driving under the influence, call Coover & Associates, a Pennsylvania law firm specializing in DUI defense in Carlisle, Chambersburg, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Lemoyne, and York. We provide low-cost initial consultations to all prospective clients. Call us at: 717-885-5830.