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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Lower Court Was Not Required to Impose Mandatory Maximum Sentence on DUI Defendant

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently held that when a sentencing court sentences a DUI defendant to County Intermediate Punishment (“CIP”) pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S. § 9763, the sentencing court is not required to impose a mandatory maximum pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S. § 3804(d).

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In June 2015, Alexis Popielarcheck pled guilty to two counts of Driving Under the Influence (DUI) (Second Offense – Ten Years); 13 counts of Disregard Traffic Lane; Reckless Driving; and Restraint Systems as a result of an August 2014 incident in which she was under the influence of various controlled substances. The court ordered a pre-sentence investigation and modified Popielarcheck’s bail to require inpatient drug and alcohol therapy.

This was Popielarcheck’s second DUI offense in 10 years. It was graded as a misdemeanor of the first degree, which is punishable by a maximum sentence of five years. Popielarcheck was a qualified offender required to undergo “a full assessment for alcohol and drug addiction” pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S. § 3814. Popielarcheck did undergo such an assessment, which found that she was “in need of additional treatment.” If the trial court had not sentenced Popielarcheck to CIP, a mandatory five-year maximum sentence would apply.

At the September 2015 sentencing hearing, the court sentenced Popielarcheck to a total term of two years of CIP, with 120 days to be served as house arrest, and with 21 days’ credit for time at Greenbriar Treatment Center, and it assessed a fine of $1,000 for the offense of DUI. The district attorney inquired about the total length of supervision due to statutory requirements, arguing unsuccessfully that the court was required to sentence Popielarcheck to the statutory maximum range of her sentence, notwithstanding the court’s discretion to sentence Popielarcheck to CIP.

In September 2015, the Commonwealth filed post-sentence motions asserting that the sentencing court erred by (i) not imposing the statutorily mandated fine; (ii) not mandating electronic monitoring as part of Popielarcheck’s sentence of house arrest; (iii) not imposing a maximum term of five years; and (iv) sentencing Popielarcheck to less than five years of supervision in light of the various factors to be considered at sentencing.

In October 2015, the court amended its sentencing order to reflect the correct fine and to include “[h]ouse arrest with electronic surveillance,” adding that “[o]therwise, the sentence is legal and a proper exercise of judicial discretion.”

On appeal, the Commonwealth raised the following issues:  (1) whether the lower court erred in disregarding the statutory mandate requiring the imposition of a maximum sentence equal to the statutorily available maximum for an offender deemed at an initial assessment to be in need of further treatment; and (2) whether the lower court abused its discretion in failing to impose a sentence with a long maximum term in order to achieve the goals articulated by the sentencing code of assuring the safety of the public while providing for the rehabilitative needs of the offender.

Regarding the first issue, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that by its plain language, the mandatory maximum sentence provision in § 3804(d) applies only when a defendant “is sentenced pursuant to [that] chapter.” However, Popielarcheck was not sentenced pursuant to Chapter 38; she was sentenced under an alternative sentencing scheme to CIP as authorized in Chapter 97 of the Sentencing Code. Therefore, the appeals court held that neither the mandatory minimum nor the mandatory maximum provisions of Pennsylvania’s DUI statute applied, and the sentence imposed was not illegal.

Regarding the second issue, the appeals court explained that the Commonwealth summarized the evidence adduced during Popielarcheck’s Pre-Sentence Investigation suggesting she was in need of treatment and then summarily concluded that “the sentencing court abused its discretion in imposing a total sentence of less than half the statutory maximum available to ensure adequate supervision to promote the safety of the public as well as the rehabilitative needs of [Appellee].”

The Commonwealth’s claim that the sentencing court failed to adequately consider these aggravating factors, the court explained, closely mirrored the claims of countless criminal defendants who aver that their sentencing courts failed to adequately consider mitigating evidence. An argument that the sentencing court failed to consider mitigating factors in favor of a lesser sentence does not present a substantial question appropriate for the court’s review. Thus, the court concluded that the Commonwealth’s assertion that the trial court did not adequately consider Appellee’s need for treatment did not raise a substantial question. The court therefore did not review the merits of this claim.

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 Appeals Court Holds DUI Defendant Waived Right to Counsel, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, December 1, 2016.

Pennsylvania Educates Teens About Dangers of Distracted Driving, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, November 15, 2016.

Pennsylvania Governor Signs Ignition Interlock Law, Pennsylvania DUI Blog, October 11, 2016.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Rejects Contention That Appellant’s Sentence Violates Ex Post Facto Clause, Pennsylvania DUI Blog, October 3, 2016.