Demko memorial

This roadside memorial marked the site along Lampeter Road where Meredith Demko was killed in a car accident July 8, 2014.

THE ISSUE

A state House task force will hold a hearing in June in West Lampeter Township on House Bill 278 — sponsored by state Rep. Keith Greiner, R-Leola — that would expand the use of ignition interlock devices to cases involving certain first-time DUI offenders. Ignition interlock devices keep a car from starting until the driver has breathed into the device and his breath is analyzed.

State lawmakers need to pass Rep. Greiner’s ignition interlock bill.

Ignition interlock technology is a useful tool, and we should take full advantage of it.

But it’s only a partial answer to the DUI scourge.

As the parents of Meredith Demko learned in the most heartbreaking way possible, people who previously have driven under the influence too often make the reckless and dangerous choice to reoffend.

And our law, as it stands, doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to stop them.

We stand with Chris and Susan Demko, who in an open letter in LNP after their daughter’s death in July, implored lawmakers to “craft effective laws that will focus on preventing those with prior DUI convictions from driving while impaired.”

And we think lawmakers ought to seriously consider some of the changes to Pennsylvania law proposed by Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman.

Stedman drafted his proposals in April at the suggestion of state Sen. Lloyd Smucker.

Stedman wants Pennsylvania law to permit the seizure of vehicles owned by repeat offenders. He says 32 other states have such laws, and early studies suggest they lead to a significant drop in recidivism.

Seizing a repeat offender’s vehicle makes sense to us, though, again, it’s not the whole answer — Thomas Gallagher Jr., the repeat DUI offender who caused the crash that killed Meredith Demko, was driving his mother’s car at the time.

Stedman also wants the law to allow for administrative  license suspensions, so police officers could immediately take the license of a driver arrested for DUI who refuses chemical testing.

Critics of administrative license suspension say it denies due process. But Stedman’s proposal seems to address this concern — the driver would be provided with a temporary license, and could request an administrative hearing.

The district attorney also wants there to be a presumption of malice for repeat DUI offenders who kill.

This would allow for third-degree murder charges and longer sentences.

On this proposal, we’re not convinced. Even repeat DUI offenders don’t generally intend to harm others.

We must strengthen the laws governing DUI penalties. But as Michael Winters, a Lancaster defense attorney and former police officer told LNP, we must not “build in shortcuts to justice and allow the commonwealth to circumvent the presumption of innocence.”

We do see merit, however, in Stedman’s proposal for felony grading for third and subsequent DUI offenses.

Currently — and shockingly —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.

“A three-time shoplifter faces a greater maximum penalty than a habitual DUI driver,” Stedman wrote.

He says this “defies logic” — and we absolutely agree.

As LNP reported in September,  the typical drunken driver charged in 2013 in Lancaster County had a lot to drink before getting behind the wheel. Common characteristics of these binge drinkers included a family history of alcoholism, and a mental health issue, such as anxiety or depression.

Treatment is always the first, best option for those who drink too much, or are addicted to drugs.

But someone who repeatedly puts the lives of other people at risk has to face the penalty for doing so — and that penalty needs to be more than a figurative slap on the wrist and a brief interruption of his potentially lethal behavior.

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