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Appeals Court Holds Evidence Sufficient to Support Pennsylvania DUI Conviction

At approximately 12:50 A.M. on July 4, 2015, a Ross Township police officer was observing traffic from a parking lot on McKnight Road in his marked police vehicle. He observed Appellant make an illegal U-turn on McKnight Road at Nelson Run Road. The officer pulled out of the parking lot onto McKnight Road and followed Appellant. He ran Appellant’s registration and while following Appellant observed that he twice swerved over the solid white line separating McKnight Road from the 279 South on-ramp. At that point, the officer activated his lights and sirens and attempted to conduct a traffic stop of Appellant’s vehicle. Appellant drove another 300 feet before pulling over in response to the police officer’s actions.

The officer walked over to the driver’s side window and spoke with Appellant. He immediately smelled a moderate odor of alcoholic beverage on Appellant’s breath. Appellant’s eyes were glassy, watery, and bloodshot. Appellant provided his driver’s license upon request, and the officer returned to his vehicle to run Appellant’s license. He learned that Appellant’s driver’s license was suspended.

When he returned to Appellant’s vehicle, he noticed that the vehicle was still in drive, and he requested that Appellant shut the vehicle off and hand him the keys. Additional officers arrived on the scene to serve as backup, and the officer asked Appellant to step out of the vehicle to conduct field sobriety tests; Appellant complied. The officer administered several field sobriety tests, including walk and turn, one leg stand, and modified Romberg balance tests. Appellant swayed throughout the tests and had difficulty following instructions. Appellant failed the walk and turn test and the one leg stand test. At that point, the officer asked Appellant to submit to a preliminary breath test, and Appellant complied. Appellant admitted that he was drinking earlier in the evening.

Based on Appellant’s performance in the field sobriety tests, the operation of his vehicle, his admission to the consumption of alcohol, and his overall appearance, the officer opined that Appellant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs to the degree that he was unable to safely operate a motor vehicle. Appellant was arrested and charged with DUI.

Following a bench trial, on October 27, 2016, the trial court rendered a guilty verdict and sentenced Appellant to six months of probation for DUI. Appellant presented a sole issue for review on appeal:  whether the trial court erred in finding Appellant guilty of violating 75 Pa.C.S. § 3802(a)(1) when the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Appellant was impaired by alcohol to a degree that rendered him incapable of safe driving.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded that the evidence here was not, as Appellant asserted, so “ambiguous and contradictory” that the trial court could not convict Appellant on the basis of it. Although Appellant’s breathalyzer test did not produce evidence of alcohol, Appellant admitted that he had consumed alcohol and failed to pass some of the field sobriety tests that the officer administered. The officer testified that Appellant committed two traffic violations, smelled of alcohol, and had glassy, watery, and bloodshot eyes. Appellant did not offer any evidence to refute this testimony.

In addition, the officer concluded — and opined at trial — that Appellant was incapable of safe driving. Pennsylvania courts have found repeatedly that a police officer who has perceived a defendant’s appearance and acts is competent to express an opinion as to the defendant’s state of intoxication and ability to safely drive a vehicle. Appellant argued, however, that the officer did not arrest Appellant because he suspected him of alcoholic intoxication, but because he suspected Appellant was under the influence of cocaine.

The court’s review of the record disclosed, however, that the officer testified about Appellant’s possible impairment by both alcohol (which he said he smelled on Appellant’s breath and which Appellant admitted drinking) and drugs. The trial court was free to consider that testimony along with the other evidence in the case and to conclude that Appellant was impaired and that his consumption of alcohol caused the impairment.

The court concluded that Appellant’s sufficiency of the evidence argument lacked merit and affirmed the judgment of sentence.

Hiring the right attorney can make all of 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 can 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 Denies DUI Defendant Post-Conviction Relief, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, October 18, 2017

Pennsylvania Superior Court Denies DUI Defendant Post-Conviction Relief, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, September 15, 2017.

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania Upholds DUI Defendant’s License Suspension, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, September 1, 2017.