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Tougher DUI penalties urged in Deana Eckman’s name

Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer joined the parents of a woman killed by an impaired driver in 2019 during testimony before the state Senate Transportation Committee last week on proposed legislation to increase penalties for repeat DUI offenders.

The committee – which includes Sens. Tim Kearney, D-26 of Swarthmore, and John Kane, D-9 of Birmingham – was convened to examine the potential impacts of “Deana’s Law,” named for Deana Eckman.

Eckman’s parents, Rich and Roseann DeRosa, spoke about the need for extended incarceration of those who continually flout the law through consecutive and harsher sentences, as well as Continuous Alcohol Monitoring, or “CAM,” bracelets that alert authorities when someone already convicted of a DUI offense imbibes while on probation.

Eckman, 45, was killed by David Strowhouer in a drunken-driving crash as she and her husband, Chris, were returning home from a family gathering Feb. 16, 2019. Chis Eckman was also injured in the crash.

Strowhouer’s blood-alcohol level was 0.199%, and he had traces of cocaine, diazepam and marijuana in his system at the time, authorities said. He later pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence and related offenses and was sentenced to 25 1/2 to 50 years in state prison.

But Roseann DeRosa said the criminal justice system had already failed their family because Strowhouer – with five prior DUIs on his record – was sentenced to concurrent rather than consecutive sentences on his fourth and fifth offenses.

Rich DeRosa noted Strowhouer had also failed to live up to parole requirements, which likewise should have gotten him off the street before the accident that claimed his daughter.

“Concurrent sentencing is an absolute insult to law-abiding citizens,” he told the committee. “There is no logic that can ever be presented that can make concurrent sentencing acceptable to me. Had David Strowhouer been sentenced consecutively, as he should have been, he would not have been on the street to murder my daughter. Deana’s Law would mandate consecutive sentences for the worst DUI offenders.”

This is the second attempt to pass a package of DUI reforms in Eckman’s name. Similar proposals in the last session were defeated largely due to an amendment that carved out marijuana used lawfully under the state’s Medical Marijuana Act from definitions for a controlled substance. The exception, which was later removed, garnered opposition from AAA, while penalties including first-degree felonies drew the ire of Second Amendment organizations because they bar an offender from later owning firearms.

A new pair of bills introduced in March by State Rep. Chris Quinn, R-168 of Middletown, and state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-24 of Marlborough Township, would try to head off the Second Amendment issue by raising offenses only to the level of a second-degree felony for a fourth or subsequent offense.

Stollsteimer in his remarks pointed to a January 2018 joint report from the Pennsylvania Departments of Drug and Alcohol Programs and Department of Transportation showing that drivers with prior DUI convictions are 62% more likely to be in a fatal crash.

Stollsteimer said he agreed with Mensch, appearing via video for the hearing, that alcoholism and drug abuse are diseases that need to be treated, but there needs to be a line.

“We have to say to those people, ‘We’re here to give you whatever treatment and help we can, but we can’t have you get behind the wheel of a car, it’s a deadly weapon,’” Stollsteimer said.

Mindy Huddleston, director of government and industry relations at Alcohol Monitoring Systems, also described how the CAM bracelet reduced recidivism in the short and long term. While 75% of suspended drivers continue to drive, Huddleston said CAM has a 99.3% deterrence rate on average nationally over 90 days and that recidivism rates also drop for former wearers.

“What research tells us, what we know from the data is that your risk of being involved in an alcohol-related traffic crash increases approximately 20% with each additional prior DUI conviction,” she said. “So the odds of a first-time DUI offender becoming a second-time offender – meaning a crash or an arrest – is 24%. The odds of a second-time DUI offender becoming a third time offender is 36%, and then the odds of a third-time offender repeating to a fourth offense is 51%.”

CAM bracelets monitor blood-alcohol levels in wearers every 30 minutes and detect BAC above 0.02%, said Huddleston. If alcohol above that limit is detected, law enforcement is notified to pick the wearer up on a parole or probation violation before they get behind the wheel of a car.

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-45, who has sponsored a bill to remove DUI penalties for legal marijuana use, noted that some 370,000 patients suffering from chronic illness have benefited from the state’s Medical Marijuana Act. But she said Pennsylvania’s current zero tolerance policies for DUI have put many of them in danger of being arrested and prosecuted simply for taking medication that may not be affecting them at the time of a traffic stop because its detectable components linger in the bloodstream.

Jesse Roedts provided testimony of his own experience in exactly that situation when he was charged with a tier-three DUI in 2018 after state police drew his blood as part of a DUI checkpoint stop. Roedts said he was targeted by troopers because he acknowledged he is a medical marijuana patient, though he was not under the influence of marijuana at the time of the stop. The charges were later withdrawn, but Roedts said he had to spend thousands in legal fees for that outcome and his arrest was publicized in local media, which forced him to disclose his medical condition to employers and parents of students he had as a music teacher.

The committee also took testimony from the Pennsylvania DUI Association, defense attorneys and members of the state police.

Roseann DeRosa criticized the drawn-out process of getting a bill passed in her daughter’s name due to irrelevant amendments and lawmakers who she said focus more on the rights of criminals than victims.

“As a mother, I cannot fathom how Deana’s Law has not been passed,” she said. “This bill targets the worst repeat DUI offenders – the offenders who drive on our roadways constantly drunk until they ultimately kill an innocent person.”

She also tearfully described her daughter’s laugh and the way her smile brightened a room, as well as the void left in her passing, and urged lawmakers to pass a law that would potentially save another family from what she described as an endless nightmare.

“The grief me and my husband carry every day is torture and never ending,” she said. “Losing a child is the most heart-wrenching, chest-crushing, breath-stealing tragedy on earth. My life will never be the same because nothing in this world will ever fill the space that belonged to only her.”

Richard DeRosa also disputed assertions that the proposals may be too costly from the standpoint of increased incarcerations, saying if more repeat offenders were locked up for longer, there would be a savings from fewer emergency responses to crashes, fewer investigations and fewer court hearings. But more importantly, he said, it would save lives.

“Remember that your families and loved ones share the road with irresponsible DUI drivers,” Rich DeRosa said. “Don’t think for a minute that this tragedy couldn’t happen to your family. I used to think that, now there’s an empty chair at my table and a hole in my heart.”


Source: Berkshire mont

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