A year ago, Chris Demko had faith in the system. Then last July, his daughter, Meredith, was killed by a repeat drunk driver whose license had been suspended for more than a decade.
Demko was stunned. "I don't want to say I was naïve," he said. But he assumed serial offenders who lost their licenses abided by the law and stayed off the roads.
That illusion shattered, and his family devastated, Demko turned into an advocate for stronger laws. One of the reforms he's advocated may be on the cusp of coming to pass - and more, even tougher measures may we waiting in the wings.
Next month, a state House task force will hold a hearing in West Lampeter Township on a bill — sponsored by state Rep. Keith Greiner, R-Leola — that would expand the use of ignition interlock devices. A similar bill in the state Senate was proposed in 2013. Backers think the proposals have a good chance of becoming law, perhaps even this year.
Meanwhile, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman has some additional ideas to put teeth — or fangs — into Pennsylvania's drunk driving laws, which haven't been altered since 2003. Among the suggestions: Allowing authorities to seize a repeat offender's vehicle; making a third or subsequent DUI offense a felony; and permitting the "presumption of malice" in repeat DUI cases that involve fatal crashes — which would allow prosecutors to charge the offender with murder.
"Would these solve all the problems? No," admits Stedman. "But would it save some lives? Yes."
More repeat offenders
The number of repeat DUI offenders in Lancaster County is climbing.
In 2010, about one in five offenders, 21.3 percent, had at least one previous DUI. In 2014 that figure climbed to nearly one in three, 31.2 percent.
That's higher than the 2014 statewide average of 28.6 percent.
The number of DUI cases here also spiked. In 2010, there were 1,387 local cases, according to data from the Lancaster County District Attorney's Office and the Pennsylvania DUI Association. That figure has risen every year since; last year there were 1,615 cases.
Repeat offenders have been responsible for numerous fatal crashes here. But it was the crash that killed Meredith Demko that really galvanized public opinion — and legislative interest.
On July 8, 2014, Demko was traveling on Lamppost Lane in West Lampeter Township when she was hit head-on by a vehicle driven by Thomas Gallagher Jr., then 29. Gallagher had two previous DUIs and his license had been suspended since 2003; his blood alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit of .08 percent, and he had heroin in his system.
He pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, among other crimes; on April 29 he was sentenced to 20 to 50 years in state prison.
For Chris Demko, the verdict provided some closure. But not enough.
Just days after his daughter died, Demko and his wife, Susan, published an open letter in the Sunday News, thanking the county for its support — and asserting that Pennsylvania needs stiffer DUI laws.
"We as a community cannot continue to assume that individuals with DUI convictions, and in many cases suspended licenses, will obey the law,” they wrote. “It is important that we craft effective laws that will focus on preventing those with prior DUI convictions from driving while impaired."
Soon after, Chris Demko met with Sen. Smucker, who then backed stronger DUI laws and convened a hearing of the state Senate Judiciary and Transportation committees in Lancaster to address the issue. Yet while there was broad agreement that the legislature needed to act, the one measure that had already been introduced — the ignition interlock bill, sponsored by Senate Transportation Committee Chair John Rafferty, a Montgomery County Republican — went nowhere.
In January, Rep. Greiner introduced similar legislation in the House. State law already requires anyone with a second or subsequent DUI to have an interlock system in each vehicle they own for one year before they're eligible for an unrestricted driver's license, Greiner's proposal would extend the program to first-time offenders.
Greiner has invited a House task force, consisting of members of the transportation and judiciary committees, to hold the first of several meetings on the proposal in Lancaster County. The event will take place in West Lampeter Township in early June, though Greiner said he hadn't confirmed an exact date yet.
The Pennsylvania chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving has backed the bill, and Greiner says colleagues seem enthusiastic. Still, there will be critics — the American Beverage Institute, which represents the restaurant industry, opposes the Senate bill, noting that it doesn't target offenders with multiple DUIs or drivers with a high blood alcohol content, who cause 70 percent of drunken driving fatalities.
New, tough proposals
But District Attorney Stedman has a few ideas that might.
Stedman met with Smucker in early April, who asked him to draw up a list of changes he'd like to see to Pennsylvania's DUI laws. Stedman came up with five ideas:
*Laws permitting the seizure of vehicles owned by repeat offenders - 32 other states have such laws, Stedman wrote, and early studies suggest they lead to a big drop in recidivism
*Felony grading for third and subsequent DUI offenses - currently, offenders arrested for a third or subsequent DUI can at most be charged with a misdemeanor of the first degree, which carries a maximum penalty of five years. Lesser crimes, such a retail theft, categorize a third or subsequent offense as a felony, with longer penalties. "A three-time shoplifter faces a greater maximum penalty than a habitual DUI driver," Stedman wrote. "This defies logic."
*Presumption of malice for repeat offenders who kill - repeat offenders, Stedman wrote,know the risks of driving drunk, and do it anyway. The presumption of malice would allow for third-degree murder charges and longer sentences.
*Administrative license suspensions - allowing police officers to immediately take the license of drivers arrested for DUI who refuse chemical testing, and provide the offender with a temporary license to allow them to make arrangements or request an administrative hearing.
*Eliminate the statute of limitation for homicide by vehicle while DUI - the current statute of limitation is two years.
None of the suggestions have made their way into legislation yet, and Stedman suspects some will be controversial. He's right.
"All criminal offenses that have an addiction at their root should cause us to focus on the addiction at least as zealously as we do punishment," said Michael Winters, a Lancaster defense attorney and former police officer.
The details of Stedman’s proposals, once they’re fleshed out, could be problematic, he said. But the presumption of malice idea in particular troubles him. “These offenses often involve horrible and tragic outcomes that leave a wake of heartache and loss that will never go away. But it is when the facts surrounding a crime are so awful and our desire to quickly hold someone accountable is so overwhelming, that is the time to make certain that we not build in shortcuts to justice and allow the Commonwealth to circumvent the presumption of innocence."