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Drunk driver sentenced in Pa.

September 22, 1997

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer, Chambersburg

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Nothing can make up for the weeks that Tom Pilgrim stayed in the hospital, the months he spent in a wheelchair, and the days it took him to learn how to walk again.

Most of all, Pilgrim, a self-employed electrician, and his wife, Dena, know they'll never get back more than $30,000 spent in medical bills and the year of lost income after a drunken driver crashed into their minivan on Sept. 4, 1996 on U.S. 11. Both of Tom's legs were crushed and his right arm was broken; Dena suffered bruised lungs and knee damage.

But the Chambersburg couple isn't alone in paying the price for the accident.

The driver, Travis Fisher, 31, of Greencastle, Pa., will be paying with time spent in jail.

Last week, Fisher was the first person in Franklin County to be prosecuted for aggravated assault by a vehicle while driving under the influence, treated now as a second-degree felony under a new statute in the Pennsylvania Crimes Code established in April 1996.

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Penalties are more severe now for drunken drivers who cause bodily injury in an accident. Before the law, Fisher would have been charged with driving under the influence, treated as a misdemeanor with a maximum punishment on the first offense of two years in prison or a $5,000 fine, said Franklin County District Attorney John F. Nelson.

But a large percentage of drunken drivers may only see a few days in jail and those who qualify are usually sentenced to attend a rehabilitation program, lose their driver's license for three months and are put on probation for a year, Nelson said.

A first-offense drunken driving charge, causing serious bodily injury, now poses a minimum sentence of four to 12 months in jail - up to a maximum of 10 years - and a maximum fine of $25,000, Nelson said.

Judge John Walker sentenced Fisher to 15 months in Franklin County Prison, above and beyond the minimum sentence recommended by the district attorney's office. He also will participate in the work-release program to pay restitution.

Fisher's sentence was increased in part because he had no automobile insurance at the time of the accident and his blood-alcohol level was found to be twice the legal limit for Pennsylvania, Nelson said.

Fisher was not injured in the accident that split his Camaro in half from what police estimated was a 90 mph impact.

There already are stiff laws in the books for drunken drivers charged with homicide by a vehicle, which call for a minimum three-year jail sentence, Nelson said.

Even under the existing statute, if the accident causes serious bodily injury, the sentence is enhanced to three to six months in jail, Nelson said.

The new law may act as a deterrent for potential drunken drivers, but Nelson said he doesn't expect much of an impact.

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