It is not just drunk drivers who cause carnage on the highways. Laura Gargiulo has been charged with homicide by vehicle and involuntary manslaughter, as well as other charges, related to an accident on May 7, 2013, in Lawrence County. Police allege that the 42 year old defendant rear-ended a 68 year old man on a motorcycle, knocking him and the bike under her vehicle, in a fatale accident. Police allege that the defendant failed to stop or notice the biker, because she was distracted by an open text at the time of the collision.
Homicide by vehicle is defined under the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code as causing the death of another, while driving recklessly or in a grossly negligent manner, and while also violating a Pennsylvania law or a local ordinance. It is now illegal in Pennsylvania to text while driving, thus rendering the homicide by vehicle statute applicable. Involuntary manslaughter is a “lesser included offense,” meaning that the defendant cannot receive a separate sentence if she is convicted of both homicide by vehicle and involuntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter is defined as engaging in either a lawful or unlawful act in a grossly negligent or reckless manner, which is the direct cause of the death of another.
Homicide by Vehicle is a third degree felony punishable by up to seven years in state prison and a $15,000 fine, however, a person with no prior record will usually receive a county jail sentence, and be paroled after serving less than one year of incarceration. This is in marked contrast to the penalty for homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, which is a second degree felony carrying a three to six year mandatory minimum sentence. If more than one victim is killed in the DUI accident, there will be consecutive, mandatory minimum sentences for each victim.
I am generally not in favor of any mandatory minimum sentences. I believe that judges should have the ability to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors in each case. That being said, there is a logical inconsistency to a three to six year mandatory minimum for a DUI-related homicide, while a texting-related homicide by vehicle conviction could result in a sentence of as little as three months in county jail, pursuant to the Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines. In fact, a judge even has the discretionary authority to impose a sentence of probation in a homicide by vehicle case.
There is no logic to this sentencing disparity because texting while driving can be even more dangerous than driving drunk, depending on circumstances such as BAC, how fast one is driving, traffic density, etc. It took a long time for society to realize how dangerous drunk driving is. Eventually, the laws were toughened to reflect the seriousness of drunk driving. Drunk driving related deaths have declined considerably over the past 30 years, in large part due to a successful public awareness campaign. Currently, texting-related vehicle accidents are on the rise. I foresee tougher anti-texting while driving laws in the near future, as well as greater public awareness of the dangers of texting while driving.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, with extensive experience defending people charged with DUI and vehicle-related offenses. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Alcohol-Offenses-DUI.shtml