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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds DUI Defendant Not Constitutionally Entitled to Jury Trial

A Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently affirmed appellant Ryan O. Langley’s appeal of his convictions of DUI and driving at an unsafe speed. The court upheld prior precedent holding that (1) an information is required to include facts that might increase the penalty when setting forth the essential elements; and (2) a defendant is not entitled to a jury trial for DUI because the Pennsylvania legislature has categorized the violation as petty for the purposes of a defendant’s jury trial rights.

Supreme Court

In November 2013, police responded to a report of a car accident in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. While investigating the scene, officers spoke with Langley and noticed the odor of alcohol on his breath. After failing field sobriety testing, Langley was placed under arrest for DUI. His BAC was determined to be .092%.

Langley was charged with two counts of DUI ((1) incapable of safely driving; (2) BAC over .08% and less than %.10) as well as failing to drive at a safe speed. Count 1 of the information stated that the appellant was subject to an enhanced penalty because his DUI violation resulted in an accident that caused bodily injury or property damage. The information also noted that this was the defendant’s second DUI offense.

Langley filed a pretrial motion asking the trial court to quash Count 1 and demanding a jury trial. The trial court denied Langley’s pretrial motion. Following a bench trial, the court convicted Langley of DUI (incapable of safely driving) and failing to drive at a safe speed. Langley was sentenced to 30 days to six months incarceration.

Langley raised the following issues on appeal:  (1) whether the trial court erred by not quashing Count 1 of the information, which contained three paragraphs regarding sentencing provisions in violation of Pa.R.Crim. P. 560; (2) whether the trial court erred by ruling that the Pennsylvania Constitution does not guarantee a jury trial for an ungraded misdemeanor DUI.

The appeals court disagreed with the appellant’s first claim that Count 1 should have been quashed because it contained superfluous language beyond the elements of the crime charged. The appellant specifically took issue with the Commonwealth’s allegation in the information that his conduct resulted in an “accident resulting in bodily injury, serious bodily injury, injury or death of any person or damage to a vehicle or other property.” By including this language in the information, the the Commonwealth put the appellant on notice that he would be subject to the mandatory minimum.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held that when a factual determination is necessary for the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence, the facts must be considered an element of a new, distinct, and aggravated offense. Thus, according to controlling precedent, the Commonwealth was required to include such facts in Langley’s information, which if proven, would increase the prescribed penalty to which he was exposed.

Moreover, the appeals court concluded that since the Commonwealth fulfilled the requirement in Rule 560(B)(5) that it set forth the essential elements of the offense in a plain and concise statement, the trial court did not err in refusing Langley’s request to quash Count 1 of the information.

Langley next contended that he was deprived of his right to a jury trial on the DUI charges under the Pennsylvania Constitution. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has already spoken directly to this issue and established that both the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Constitution only guarantee a defendant a right to a jury trial for “serious offenses,” or crimes that carry more than a six-month maximum prison sentence. In contrast, crimes that carry a maximum of six months’ imprisonment or less are considered “petty offenses” for which there is no right to a jury trial.

Langley argued that DUI offenses should not be deemed petty offenses because “an individual’s first DUI is a stepping stone to harsher penalties for subsequent offenses.” The appellant further argued that the Pennsylvania Constitution should be interpreted more broadly than the federal Constitution because the state Constitution refers to a citizen’s right to a trial by jury as “inviolate.”

However, the Pennsylvania Superior Court had already decided this issue, rejecting identical arguments as applied to DUI charges. There, the court reasoned that a court determines whether an offense is serious by looking at the judgment of the legislature, primarily as expressed in the maximum authorized term of imprisonment. Here, by setting the maximum at six months, the legislature categorized the violation as petty for the purposes of a defendant’s jury trial rights.

Moreover, the court reasoned that this categorization is not affected by the potential for a defendant to be subject to increased incarceration for a subsequent DUI offense. Much like a defendant charged with multiple petty offenses, the fact that the potential exists for an aggregate sentence exceeding six months incarceration does not entitle such a defendant to a jury trial. Pursuant to this directly controlling precedent, the court concluded that the trial court did not err in finding that Langley was not entitled to a jury trial for his DUI charges.

For these reasons, the court affirmed Langley’s sentence.

Hiring the right attorney can make all the difference in the world, even if your case seems straightforward or you have no criminal record.  If you find yourself arrested for a DUI, make sure you have a capable attorney on your side. Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Zachary B. Cooper will be aggressive and will fight to make sure that your rights are protected so that your family and you can move on with your lives. Call (215) 542-0800 for a free consultation to discuss the legal options that may be available to you.

More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Superior Court Quashes DUI Appeal as Untimely, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, August 10, 2016.

Pennsylvania Police Adjust to New DUI Laws Mandated by Supreme Court, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, July 15, 2016.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Stop Based on Informant’s Tip Backed by Reasonable Suspicion, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, July 1, 2016.

Supreme Court Ruling to Have Major Impact on DUI Cases, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, July 5, 2015.