WILKES-BARRE — Caroline Miller doesn’t like referring to closing the state’s DUI “loophole.”
“I call this a flawed Pennsylvania law that encourages criminals to flee the scene, in most cases a deadly scenario they caused,” the mother of 5-year-old hit-and-run victim Kevin Miller said Tuesday afternoon.
Miller gathered in the rotunda of the Luzerne County Courthouse with members of the county’s delegation of state legislators as well as prosecutors, to discuss bipartisan plans for changing state law so that homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident involving death both have the same minimum sentence.
Currently, DUI homicides carry a three-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. Leave the scene, and suspects face only a one-year minimum sentence if caught.
While Kevin Miller’s death was not the only local case fueling the desire for change, the issue took on renewed prominence this month after Thomas Walter Letteer Jr., 24, the Plains Township man who ran over the Dallas boy on Dec. 21, 2012, and then fled, was sentenced to serve two to five years in state prison.
County Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr. went beyond the minimum and the 12-16-month state guideline in sentencing Letteer. Many in the community expressed outrage, saying the sentence wasn’t harsh enough. Advocates of what is being called “Kevin’s Law” believe legislative action is necessary to give judges the power to impose longer sentences.
Lawmakers present Tuesday said they don’t care which party or which member’s bill achieves the purpose, so long as the loophole ultimately gets closed.
State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, sponsored a Senate bill last September, while state Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Avoca, has sponsored a House bill. Both bills remain in committee, however, and the lawmakers acknowledged they may not be able to push them through during what remains of the 2014 session, though they said they would like to try.
Carroll knows his 2013 proposal — House Bill 1422, which would amend the state’s vehicle code — may not succeed this term, but knows there may be other routes to changing the law.
“I would have to find a motor vehicle code bill that is likely to make it to the governor’s desk and embed that language in that bill,” he said.
Baker said ongoing concerns about cost remain a hurdle to amending the law, whatever legislative path is chosen.
“The challenge is that there are a number of members in the Senate and the House who are concerned about blanket mandatory minimums, because of the potential to add additional costs to the corrections system by including more people with a higher minimum sentence,” Baker told The Times Leader.
Acknowledging concerns about adding to the state’s prison population, Baker said she is in the process of researching the number of hit-and-run cases across the state “to document whether or not it would have a serious impact on correctional costs.”
“It is my belief that it won’t,” she said.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis also spoke to the issue of costs, arguing that taxpayers already foot the bill for tracking down hit-and-run drivers who flee, as Letteer did. Removing the incentive to run away would remove one more expense for police and investigators, she said, as well as lessening some of the heartache for victims’ families.
“From the prosecuting side of it, the investigation side, it’s very difficult when individuals decide to leave the scene of an accident where they killed someone and they don’t have any intention of coming forward,” Salavantis said. “You’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money we put into finding these individuals so we can charge them.”
That was true with Letteer. Prosecutors allege he had been drinking alcohol at a West Wyoming house party prior to hitting Kevin Miller as the child and his family were leaving a Christmas party, and that was motivation for fleeing — exactly the reaction cited by those seeking a change in the law.
By the time the law caught up with Letteer, any hope of proving intoxication — if indeed he had been drinking — was gone.
Letteer was interviewed by police two days after the accident but denied even being in Wilkes-Barre that night. He wasn’t arrested until April 4, 2013, more than three months later.
“With this Kevin Miller case alone, we probably spent over $100,000 between law enforcement, experts … to be able to file charges,” Salavantis said.
Miller, who tearfully spoke of seeing her son “ripped out of my husband’s hand by a drunk derelict who proceeded to flee as fast as he could,” said support from lawmakers and residents — thousands of whom have signed petitions in favor of Kevin’s Law — has been appreciated.
More support came later Tuesday, when Wilkes-Barre City Council unanimously voted to pass a resolution favoring the change after Miller addressed them during a council meeting.