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Driver's history did not bring heftier DUI penalty

April 24, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

The man who was driving the Dodge Durango that struck Jim Ostmann's car on July 13, 2004, had a history of drunken-driving arrests, but did not qualify for a heftier penalty for his driving under the influence conviction in Ostmann's case.

Jeffrey V. Bitner, 35, of 149 S. Carlisle St. in Greencastle, Pa., pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in that accident. He was sentenced on Feb. 16 by Washington County District Judge M. Kenneth Long Jr. to one year in the county jail, but Long suspended eight months of the sentence.

Bitner's blood-alcohol content was tested at Washington County Hospital about two hours after his SUV hit Ostmann's Honda Accord at 9:55 p.m. on Marsh Pike. It was recorded at 0.16, according to police records. That is twice the legal limit.

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At the time of the accident, Bitner had not yet had his day in court on a driving under the influence charge filed May 22, 2004.

Because of that, he did not qualify as a subsequent offender in the Ostmann case, Washington County State's Attorney Charles Strong said. A subsequent offender designation increases a maximum sentence, Strong said.

Previous charges


According to court documents, Bitner was convicted of DUI on April 30, 1991, and was granted probation before judgment, which is a conditional avoidance of imposition of sentence after conviction.

Strong said that his probation before judgment ruling, which is not a conviction, did not count toward Bitner's DUI record.

On Sept. 9, 2004 - two months after the crash involving Ostmann - Bitner was convicted of DUI in connection with a May 22, 2004, Washington County charge and was sentenced to three months in jail. That sentence was suspended and he was placed on one year of supervised probation.

Bitner's motor vehicle record incorrectly indicated he was granted probation before judgment in that case, according to court documents.

He pleaded guilty to two counts of driving under the influence on Aug. 30 in Franklin County, Pa. In each of those affidavits, Bitner was described as being incoherent when he was pulled over by officers. In each case, his blood alcohol content was measured above .20, according to court records. He was incarcerated in Franklin County Prison from Oct. 27, 2004, to Jan. 28 on the two DUI convictions, a records clerk there said.

"He had a number of citations, but they happened so quickly together," said Washington Deputy State's Attorney Steven Kessell, who prosecuted Bitner. "He had not been convicted of any offense" when the accident occurred, he said.

A Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration spokeswoman said Bitner's driving privileges in the state were suspended in July 2004, but that suspension was lifted in March. A Pennsylvania Department of Transportation representative said Bitner does not have a valid driver's license in that state, but could provide no further details.

Long told Bitner at the Feb. 16 hearing: "I guess it's unfortunate that these (charges) are coming up one by one and aren't being dealt with as a group, but I do think there's a significant problem here and I feel there is a penalty that needs to be paid."

Bitner's attorney, John Salvatore, told Long that Bitner suffered from depression and was sober beginning in 2001 until he began to accrue drunken-driving violations between February 2004 and July 2004. He said Bitner was seeking treatment at the time of the hearing.

He took his last drink, Salvatore said, the night his SUV hit Ostmann's car.

Bitner, according to the recording of the Feb. 16 hearing, told Long he has struggled with alcoholism.

"I wish it never would have happened, but without treatment, there's nothing you can do about it when it's happening to you," Bitner said. "I feel terrible about it. I wish there was something I could do to change it."

In a recent phone interview, Salvatore said that Bitner will have, at the end of his stay at the Washington County Detention Center, served a total of seven months for the series of offenses.

"Most drunken drivers are normal people with jobs and families," Salvatore said. Drunken driving is "also a lot more widespread than people think."

In 2004, the Washington County Sheriff's Department made 256 drunken driving arrests, which is about average for the department, Capt. Doug Mullendore said.

Maryland State Police in Hagerstown made 422 arrests in the same year, Cpl. Robert Whittington said.

Among all of the police agencies allied in the state, 25,055 drunken driving arrests were made in 2004, Maryland State Police Sgt. Thornnie Rouse said.

"That's a lot of people," Rouse said. "You preach the message and this is why we have to go and do what we do."

Bitner voluntarily entered an intensive outpatient substance abuse program at Roxbury Treatment Center in Shippensburg, Pa., one week after the accident, Salvatore said. He said Bitner, who he said was effusively apologetic about the accident, is serving his time.

"I don't know what would happen that would satisfy the Ostmanns. You can't get the gas chamber for (DUI)," he said. "If he got three years, it would not decrease the number of drunk drivers in this area."

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