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Light hit-and-run minimum sentences disputed in Pennsylvania

State laws obligate drivers in crashes to stay on the scene of an accident. Some motorists panic and drive away. Other drivers hit and run because they are driving under the influence.

Some drivers realize Pennsylvania laws can be harsher for drivers who remain with a car accident than drivers who don't. Some state officials are wondering what reason drunk drivers have to stop when leaving could mean less prison time.

The minimum prison sentence is three years for causing a fatal traffic crash while drunk. The same person could commit a DUI hit-and-run and serve as little as one year in prison, according to the way state laws are written.

Police can't perform field sobriety, breath or blood tests on drivers who are missing. Drunk driving evidence may disappear as quickly as the driver.

Some officials are questioning why mandatory prison sentences for hit-and-run accidents are so short compared to DUI fatality charges. State lawmakers who oppose changing current laws say prison populations are too high to add inmates.

Laws were changed, but not at the minimum term level. A defendant found guilty of a crash causing injury or death now can be charged with a second-degree felony, punishable by a maximum 10-year prison term.

The upgraded felony increased the maximum term by three years. No change was made to the minimum term. Critics say judges rarely order the maximum punishment, especially when drivers have no criminal record.

A Philadelphia senator had once pushed to raise the hit-and-run minimum sentence to five years. The lawmaker plans to introduce a compromise proposal that would not change the minimum for hit-and-run injury accidents. Hit-and-run convictions involving fatalities would include a three-year mandatory minimum sentence.

While laws involving criminal actions are in dispute, civil laws remain the same. A driver who is negligent and causes harm can be ordered to pay damages to accident victims or their families.

Source: therepublic.com, "Some say Pennsylvania law encourages drivers to flee accident scenes if they've been drinking," Jan. 13, 2013

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