Bill would close DUI loophole that now encourages flight

| Saturday, June 21, 2014, 7:18 p.m.

Norma Thomas said she believes her sister might have lived had Timothy Tatters Sr. stopped his car.

But Tatters, 66, of White Oak fled when he struck Thomas' sister, Lorraine Wilkes, in the early hours of Jan. 16, 2013. She died hours later.

“If he stayed ... if he called 911 ... I believe it's possible,” said Thomas, 56, of Penn Hills. “But nothing was done. He didn't give her a chance.”

Passers-by found Wilkes on the sidewalk near a Sunoco station on Lysle Boulevard, about a half-mile from UPMC McKeesport hospital. Doctors at UPMC Mercy, where paramedics took her, found multiple injuries. Police arrested Tatters two days later.

Tatters pleaded guilty to an accident involving death or personal injury and careless driving; a judge this month sentenced him to one to two years in prison.

Although Tatters, a retired Allegheny County Police officer, admitted that he spent 11 hours at a bar, drinking three 16-ounce beers, police didn't charge him with any alcohol-related offenses — in part, because they couldn't prove his blood-alcohol content was above the legal limit when he hit Wilkes.

The case, legal experts said, is an example of a “DUI loophole” that gives drunken drivers incentive to flee. Under Pennsylvania law, an intoxicated driver who kills someone faces a mandatory minimum penalty of three years in prison. Those who flee typically can be charged only with fleeing the scene of a fatal crash, which carries a mandatory minimum penalty of one year in prison.

“This flawed Pennsylvania law encourages those who create this crime to not stop,” said Caroline Miller of Dallas in Luzerne County, whose son, Kevin, 5, was killed by a hit-run driver in December 2012. “This Pennsylvania law actually benefits the criminal and not the victim's family.”

Thomas Letteer Jr., 24, who struck Miller's son, received two to five years in prison for pleading guilty to an accident involving death. Although witnesses said Letteer drank alcohol at a party before the accident, police couldn't prove it because he fled. Police arrested him four months after the accident.

Miller is working with state Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-Hazelton, to close the loophole by drafting Kevin's Law, which would make the penalties match so there's no incentive for drivers to flee. A companion bill has been before the Senate Judiciary Committee since September.

“The way the law is now, we're making it easier for people to drive drunk,” said Dan Yablonsky, 25, of Bloomfield, the victim of a hit-run driver in Lawrenceville in May 2012. “We're only going to have safer streets if we have stiffer penalties.”

Beau Fishinger, 32, of Lincoln Place was sentenced to one to two years in prison in September for pleading guilty to aggravated assault by vehicle, an accident involving death or personal injury while not properly licensed, and five summary charges for striking and nearly killing Yablonsky. Fishinger surrendered to police the day after the accident. He, too, was not charged with an alcohol-related crime, though he testified that he was drinking the night of the incident. He has three DUI convictions on his record.

“He was an experienced drunk driver. He knew the penalties and how to get around serious jail time,” Yablonsky said.

Kevin's Law has received support from the nonprofit Pennsylvania DUI Association, which advocates for highway safety programs, and other groups. No vocal critic has stepped forth.

Ngani Ndimbie, a spokeswoman for Bike Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville, said passing the law would “send a clear message (to) the commonwealth that driving while intoxicated puts people's lives in danger and there's no running away from the consequences. Strong legislation like this bill is important if we want to eliminate deaths on roads and ensure safe streets for all road users.”

In 2012, the Legislature increased the maximum penalties for fatal hit-run accidents by making the crime a second-degree felony. But the mandatory minimum penalty did not change.

Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the group has lobbied to close the loophole for several years.

That, Long said, would help to ensure “that someone doesn't cheat justice by fleeing the scene. It serves as a disincentive for people to potentially leave the scene of an accident.”

Not all fatal motor vehicle accidents warrant criminal charges, Long said, “but by fleeing the scene, you're ensuring that there will be.”

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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