By Mason Brown
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Two weeks ago, a vehicle VCU sophomore Carolina Perez was in was struck at the intersection of Second and Canal streets. Perez, who sat at the point of impact in the accident, died later that morning.
Varinder “Vick” Chahal, the driver of the other car, had no injuries; neither did his four passengers. Chahal is facing charges of felony manslaughter, driving under the influence and refusal to submit to a blood or breath test.
Around the time of the accident, mere blocks away, legislation to raise the minimum sentencing in DUI manslaughter cases was mired in committee deliberations in the Virginia Senate. The bill ultimately failed.
Had House Bill 49 passed, cases like the one involving Chahal – a 23-year-old VCU student from Springfield, Va. – would have drawn longer incarceration requirements in an effort to curb drunken driving in the state.
A legislator from Springfield – Republican Delegate Dave Albo – sponsored HB 49. He said the measure sought to properly punish those responsible for DUI manslaughter.
“The reason for the bill is that with DUI manslaughter, about 8 percent of defendants get no jail (time) and another 8 percent get less than one year,” Albo said via email. “I think it should be much more, so the bill sets a floor on DUI manslaughter at no less than a year and aggravated DUI manslaughter at no less than five years.”
The House had easily passed HB 49 on a 94-3 vote on Feb. 14. But it got bogged down in the Senate committee process.
Ultimately, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 14-0 last week that the bill be “passed by indefinitely,” thus killing it for the legislative session.
Albo said the bill failed because of concerns over money.
“Anytime you increase punishments, you have to find the money for the prison space,” he said. “In the House budget, we found the money. The Senate budget did not have any money in it for the bill, and they don’t have a budget, so the bill died for lack of money.”
However, Albo said the proposal will likely return in future sessions.
“We have been looking to do this for years,” he said. “It will come back some day.”
The Washington Regional Alcohol Program, which crusades against drunken driving, rallied for the passage of several DUI bills this sessions including HB 49.
“Virginia’s patience with the more than 29,000 drivers in the state annually convicted of driving under the influence has worn thin,” said Kurt Erickson, president of WRAP.
In the most recent statistics posted by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, 274 people were killed in alcohol-related traffic crashes in 2010.
Even with HB 49 on hold, Chahal could face stiffer punishment. Richmond prosecutors announced last week they would go before a grand jury to raise Chahal’s charge to involuntary aggravated manslaughter.
This CNS article was published by The Commonwealth Times.