It's time to change the Pa. hit-and-run laws that encourage drivers to flee
January 16, 2013By Brian Hickey
"There is no question that there is an incentive to leave a scene where there is, God forbid, a badly injured pedestrian. I'm hopefully optimistic that this bill is going to move forward, and am keeping my fingers crossed."
-- State Sen. Lawrence Farnese, about hit-and-run sentencing legislation returning to Harrisburg this year
Those pictures at the top of this post represent the evolving face of a hit-and-run victim. Specifically, one of the lucky ones.
Four years ago today, I was discharged from Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Center City. It was seven weeks to the day after I almost died. Better put, it was seven weeks to the day after I was almost killed by a criminal.
On the night of Nov. 28, 2008, I was walking along a one-way street in Collingswood, N.J., when I was struck by a car. I don't remember it happening. Traumatic brain injuries tend to wipe those memory slates clean.
While I was resting uncomfortably in a medically induced coma over at Cooper University Hospital, Collingswood Police Chief Thomas Garrity told Jason Nark of the Daily News that neighbors "heard a loud bang and saw a car speeding east ... but didn't get a description of the vehicle or a license plate."
Months later, when I'd recovered to the point of being able to report on my near demise for Philadelphia Magazine, neighbors told me the same thing. And, years later, there are no new details to share in what's become a cold case.
Forgiveness but not forgetfulness
The first point is a short one.
Four years is a long time to harbor a grudge, which I've done on account of the fact that the person who nearly turned my bride into a widow and almost forced my father to bury his only child has never been caught.
Excuse the graduation analogy, but today's the day I toss that personal anger away like a square, tasseled cap knowing full well that criminal justice might not be served, but the karmic variety most certainly will. (I feel better already.)
The second point is a bit more complex.
While my case may have gotten a bit of attention locally (that's what happens when a crime victim is a member of a media that covers crime and its victims), hit-and-runs were not nearly getting the level of attention they deserved.
I get the sense that public awareness of the hit-and-run epidemic is growing. All I can do is hope that that trend a) helps solve some of the cases, both fatal and nonfatal and b) convinces people to remain at the scene.
Let's set morality aside for the sake of this discussion. The problem with bringing "b" to fruition is that Pennsylvania's antiquated laws encourage the opposite.
As currently written, drunk drivers are unintentionally encouraged to leave a hit-and-run scene. A drunk driver who kills faces a mandatory three-year sentence, while a drunk driver who flees, sobers up and gets caught (or turns him- or herself in) faces a one-year minimum.
Police officers tell me they know this.
Speaking in the wake of the fatal hit-and-run of a 5-year-old boy in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County First Assistant District Attorney Sam Sanguedolce likened that lapse to an "incentive to flee."
This is something state legislators know as well.
Locally, state Sens. Mike Stack and Lawrence Farnese have tried for years to bridge that punishment-disparity gap. Each time, their legislation has been met by opposition (mostly Republican) to mandatory minimums and the cost of prison overcrowding.
Each time, it's left me thinking that state legislators devalue the experiences of hit-and-run victims. It feels as if they care more about some ethereal ideology than the scars on my head from where they carved skull flaps out to save my life.
Heck, even the minor celebrations come with caveats.
Take an ultimately signed-into-law bill proposed by state Rep. Dave Reed (R-Indiana County) last year. Reed, too, tried to hike the mandatory minimum. It passed the state House 194 to 1, but the Senate would not abide.
Rather than boosting the minimum, it hiked the maximum. Rather than discouraging hit-and-run drivers from fleeing, it encouraged them to flee faster.
Though I don't want to do so, news like this has left me agreeing with Theresa Sautter, whose 15-year-old daughter Marylee Otto was killed in a 2008 Northeast Philly hit-and-run, when she says that things will never change, and that very few in power seem to care.
What's coming up?
Neither Stack nor Farnese are willing to accept that line of thought, though.
Stack's office told me Monday that he will reintroduce a bill in February to hike the mandatory minimum for fleeing the scene of serious bodily injury to one year and three years in cases involving fatalities.
Farnese, who has backed Stack's efforts at every turn and proposed legislation of his own, told me that he's more confident than in previous years that it will get through both the House and Senate.
He based this on the fact that a measure, which emerged from the Senate Transportation Committee with bipartisan support, including that of chairman John Rafferty, a Republican who represents Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties.
"The fact that we had enough votes to do that is significant," Farnese said. "I have a commitment from Chairman Rafferty that we'd continue to work on this."
He also noted that three additional Democratic votes in the senate will help with the legislative push this year.
"We're a lot closer than we were in recent years," said Farnese, noting that philosophical hurdles to mandatory minimums were overcome in regards to straw-purchaser sanctions.
"If you look beyond the ideology, and at what is the grave harm we're trying to address and hopefully alleviate, this is the same type of situation," he continued. "There is no question that there is an incentive to leave a scene where there is, God forbid, a badly injured pedestrian. I'm hopefully optimistic that this bill is going to move forward, and am keeping my fingers crossed."
As am I, Sen. Farnese, since I'd hate to have to write this same column again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. Because I will until the day I can write about Pennsylvania legislators on both sides of the aisle, and from all walks of life, treating hit-and-run cases as the scourge they are.