Enhanced penalties for repeat offenders
Julie Webster was 25 years old when she died in a DUI crash along state Route 26 near Pleasant Gap in July 2010. Her former boyfriend was driving the vehicle at a speed of more than 110 mph and with a blood alcohol level triple the legal limit, according to Julie’s father, Jeffrey Webster. Courtesy photo
A retired Altoona resident who lost his youngest daughter in a DUI accident years ago applauded new changes to a state law that enhances penalties for repeat offenders of driving while under the influence.
Under the changes, a person who has three or more prior offenses for drunken driving will now be charged with a felony instead of a misdemeanor.
Julie Webster was only 25 years old when she was killed in a DUI crash along state Route 26 near Pleasant Gap on July 25, 2010. It was her former boyfriend, Shawn Michael Meter, who took her life, driving faster than 110 mph and with a blood alcohol level triple the legal limit, according to Julie’s father, Jeffrey.
The car struck a ditch, rolled multiple times and ejected Julie out a window.
Then flown by medical helicopter to Altoona Hospital, Julie fought to stay alive for about two hours before dying from severe internal injuries caused by blunt force trauma.
Court records show Meter pleaded guilty in November 2011 to homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, accident involving death, involuntary manslaughter, DUI highest rate of alcohol (blood alcohol level more than 0.16) and other related charges.
Records also show Meter had a misdemeanor charge for a DUI in 2009, his first DUI offense.
Jeffrey said Meter served the minimum prison sentence of three years, but under the DUI law changes, he would have served a minimum of five years as a repeat offender.
The increased severity for repeat DUI offenses is something Jeffrey said he is very excited about.
“Driving drunk can affect anybody. There’s no particular group. It doesn’t matter,” he added. “It’s really a problem across our society.”
Consequences of driving under the influence
From 2008-18, the Pennsylvania State Police had an average of 19,878 DUI arrests each year, with the highest number of arrests in 2017 at 20,068, and the lowest number in 2008 at 16,117, according to statistics provided by Pennsylvania state police Trooper Joseph Dunsmore.
Over the same 10-year span, state police Troop G — which covers Centre, Blair, Huntingdon, Mifflin, Juniata, Bedford and Fulton counties — had an average of 1,014 DUI arrests each year. The highest number of arrests for Troop G was 1,073 in 2017 and 2016, while the lowest number was 776 in 2011.
If someone had repeated DUI offenses where no one was harmed, the person would only be charged with misdemeanors under the old law, according to Blair County First Assistant District Attorney Peter Weeks. Now, along with filing of felony charges, the length of incarceration for repeat offenses has gone up — legislative changes Weeks said he welcomes.
“This is not for the people who are first-time offenders,” Weeks said. “These are for the people who’ve been given multiple chances and have just refused to change their behaviors.”
“I think the idea behind it is you shouldn’t have to wait for somebody who’s repeatedly driving intoxicated and endangering everybody else to kill someone or hurt someone before you can significantly penalize that person,” he added. “This change in the law allows us to give a more significant penalty.”
Despite upping the severity of offenses, Altoona attorney Jason Imler said he doesn’t think the DUI law changes will fix the problem or change anything. He did note the low relapse rate of people attending the Blair County DUI Court, and advocated for all areas to have a court that specifically handles DUIs.
Those who have DUI charges in addition to more serious charges, such as homicide by vehicle and aggravated assault, go through the regular court system. But defendants with DUI offenses that didn’t result in any harm are sometimes eligible to participate in a DUI Court, which Weeks said offers a good chance for rehabilitation.
The Blair County DUI Court opened in 2005 as a post-conviction court for those who have had three DUI offenses within the last 10 years or repeated offenses along with other high-risk indicators, said Judge Daniel Milliron.
Those who participate in the DUI program spend time in jail and then undergo intense treatment after an evaluation.
Milliron described the DUI Court as using a system that “mixes in accountability with treatment,” consisting of electronic monitoring such as ankle bracelets, random testing and weekly check-ins with offenders, among other requirements. He said the DUI Court program recidivism rates are dramatically lower than those of offenders who go through traditional probation.
The DUI Court has had 201 individuals graduate from its program since its opening. There have been eight people who reoffended with another DUI within three years of graduation, according to Scott Schultz from Blair County Court administration.
Although the Blair County DUI court has low recidivism rates, Milliron said it is not practical for all counties, especially smaller counties, to have a DUI Court due to lack of funding and resources.
But he added the Blair County DUI is working cooperatively with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to take in more offenders from other counties.
“DUI is a serious crime, and it presents a serious public risk,” Milliron said. “And it needs to be taken very seriously. If you have a fourth offense, I don’t think it’s unfair to grade it as a felony.”
“Our goal is to prevent the person who, without DUI Court, would get a fourth offense and stopping them at three,” he added. “That’s our goal: public safety and treatment.”
A tribute to Julie
In honor of Julie’s death, the nonprofit organization, Justice 4 Julie, was formed in April 2012 to spread awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving. The group shares Julie’s story at several high schools in both Blair and Centre counties and has also spoken at victim impact panels and to inmates at state prisons.
“I hope the people that are in prison that made a mistake that when they can come out, they rehabilitate themselves, especially if they did anything that had to do with drugs or alcohol while driving,” Jeffrey said. “Hopefully telling them what it’s like from the victim’s side, instead of just from their side, they understand that other people can be hurt like this.”
“We feel that we’re keeping not only Julie’s memory alive, but we’re doing this as a tribute to Julie,” Jeffrey said. “We miss her tremendously,” he added, his voice cracking.
More than 600 people attended her funeral in Altoona even though she lived in Bellefonte, a sign of how many lives Julie touched, something Jeffrey said he didn’t realize until she was gone.
“I think God put her on this earth to help other people,” he said, describing his daughter as someone who was a lifelong friend to others. “It didn’t matter what you needed, Julie would come to your assistance at any time of the day.”
He recalled a favorite memory of the two of them on a road trip together to Chambersburg in May 2010 to go empty a storage unit Julie had over there.
Another memory was the evening Julie visited her parents and hugged and kissed her father, something she didn’t normally do.
That was the last time Jeffrey saw his youngest daughter alive. Initially after her death, Jeffrey described himself as being despondent, feeling like he failed as a father. While some of the family is unable to openly talk about the fatal crash, Jeffrey said sharing Julie’s story as part of an educational message to others is part of her legacy.
“As time goes by, yes, it’s not near as devastating as it was, but the memories are still there and we’re never going to forget her,” he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Shen Wu Tan is at 946-7457.