When a person involved in a car crash is accused of driving under the influence and another person dies in the crash, the driver can be charged with Driving Under the Influence Manslaughter. Typically, if a person is suspected of being DUI at the time of the crash and the police know that there is serious bodily injury or a fatality, the police will take a sample of the driver’s blood in order to later test the blood alcohol level or to test the quantity of any drugs or controlled substances in the driver’s blood at the time. This preservation of evidence is typically critical to a DUI homicide case.
The recent arrest this week of Joseph Sterlicchi of Lake Worth exemplifies this process. Sterlicchi was allegedly involved in a motor vehicle crash back on December 3rd where an 80-year-old woman died from the blunt force trauma of the crash. Two other people were injured in the collision. Sterlicchi was transported to JFK Medical Center for treatment of his own injuries. While at the hospital, his blood was drawn and preserved as evidence. Later testing revealed that Sterlicchi’s blood alcohol level was .248, which is over three times the legal limit of .08.
This blood testing is typically the best evidence the prosecution has in a case of DUI homicide. Other evidence that is generally introduced at trial in a DUI homicide case includes the observations of police officers and investigators of the driver’s physical state after the crash. This could include the odor of alcohol on the driver’s body or on his breath, bloodshot or glassy eyes, slurred speech, delayed reflexes, poor balance, etc. In Sterlicchi’s case, officers observed Sterlicchi falling asleep as the investigators spoke with him. The prosecution will certainly argue that this was due to his alcohol-impaired state.
But what happens if the police don’t immediately know who was driving the car, such as where a person leaves the scene of the accident and is not immediately apprehended? The case of Sylvia Lugo, a Philadelphia-area woman, shows the alternate side of DUI homicide cases. Ms. Lugo allegedly left the scene of a crash on May 1, 2010 where a woman was killed. Ms. Lugo was not apprehended by police right away. As a result, there was no chemical testing of her blood and police had no way to make observations of her physical state after the crash. So what evidence could the prosecution possibly use to show that she was impaired at the time of the crash? Although all of the evidence is not yet public record, according to news reports, the police are relying upon the testimony of a 15-year-old passenger in Ms. Lugo’s own car who gave a statement that Ms. Lugo was at a party and consumed 7 ½ beers before getting behind the wheel of the car and driving “real fast.”
This single juvenile witness may not even be familiar with the signs of alcohol impairment due to her young age. That will make it extremely difficult for the prosecution to prove the charge of DUI Manslaughter against Lugo. According to Pennsylvania law, Lugo will only face a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail if the prosecution cannot prove the DUI offense, but can only establish that Lugo left the scene of the accident.