PA Parents Against Impaired Driving (PPAID) is pushing Pennsylvania lawmakers to make stricter penalties against drunk driving. Specifically, they’re advocating for Senate Bill 290, which would require ignition interlocks for first-time DUI offenders. SB 290 will likely be reviewed by the governor this month.
One of the most common questions I receive from potential clients is “what will happen to me for my first DUI”. While that is certainly a very fair question, the answer will be different for everyone depending on the
facts and circumstances of each individual case.Pennsylvania is one of the states that has mandatory minimum sentences even for first time offenders. Depending on an individual’s blood alcohol level and/or if there are any drugs in the system will be very important factors to look at.
Blood Alcohol Level <.10%
The York County organization Center for Traffic Safety recently determined that the cost of the average DUI arrest totals a whopping $10,000. The organization cited this figure while admonishing St. Patrick’s Day celebrants not to drive inebriated, as well as to put drivers on notice of the existence of numerous DUI checkpoints and roaming DUI patrols.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), from 2010 to 2014 nearly two out ofthree traffic fatalities between between midnight and 6am on St. Patrick’s Day occurred in drunk driving crashes. During these same years, the rate of drunk driving arrests on St. Patrick’s Day was 7% higher than the national drunk driving rate. During this period on St. Patrick’s Day, over half of men aged 21-34 who died from injuries associated with car crashes were killed in drunk driving incidents.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a bill in June 2014 that increases the minimum penalties for certain vehicular homicide convictions. The bill provides for an increased minimum prison sentence and permanent license suspension for the offense of “homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence.” It would apply to defendants with previous convictions for any DUI offense, not just felony DUI, or for other serious traffic offenses. The bill’s sponsor cites the danger of repeat offenders, but the bill casts a very wide net, applying to anyone with a prior DUI offense at any level.
Representative Dan Moul (R-Adams/Franklin) introduced House Bill 1733 in October 2013. He nicknamed the bill “Angie’s Law,” after a woman who was reportedly killed in an automobile accident in September 2012. The other driver had an arrest for DUI from the previous year and had reportedly entered a rehabilitation program prior to the accident. He pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle while DUI, and the court sentenced him to three and a half years in prison.
People who operate vehicles in Pennsylvania have consented to chemical testing, simply by virtue of operating a vehicle, if they are suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), according to Pennsylvania law. This applies even if a person is operating a bicycle at the time police seek to perform a chemical test, according to a recent ruling by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in Bilka v. Commonwealth. The defendant appealed an 18-month license suspension ordered after he refused to submit to blood testing. He argued that the implied consent law did not apply to him because he was riding a bicycle, which does not require a license, at the time of his arrest. The trial court and Commonwealth Court disagreed and affirmed the license suspension.
A police officer stopped the defendant, who was on a bicycle, shortly before midnight on September 15, 2011. The officer alleged that he observed the defendant run a red light, and that the bicycle lacked the headlight and side reflectors required by law. He claimed that the defendant smelled of alcohol, had slurred speech, and had trouble walking when he got off the bicycle. After the defendant refused to perform field sobriety testing, the officer placed him under arrest. The defendant refused to submit to blood testing, reportedly telling the officer that he could not be arrested for DUI on a bicycle.
A Pennsylvania judge ruled in February that prosecutors had produced sufficient evidence to support two counts of aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence, which arose from a single-car accident in October 2010. The defendant had moved to dismiss the aggravated assault charges, claiming that the injuries did not rise to the level of “serious bodily injury” as required by Pennsylvania law. The aggravated assault by vehicle statute presents another interesting issue for prosecutors, as it states that a defendant must have acted “negligently.” The question of whether negligence, or criminal negligence, is an essential element of this offense remains unsettled by Pennsylvania courts.
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune, the defendant, who was a college sophomore at the time, was driving with two passengers in his car on October 15, 2010. He was traveling at about sixty-five miles per hour, according to police, when the car struck a tree. Court records state that one passenger suffered multiple injuries, including a broken leg; while the other passenger suffered a fractured spine and head injuries. Police claim that the defendant had blood alcohol content of 0.178 percent.
Prosecutors charged the defendant with driving under the influence – general impairment, as well as first-offense driving under the influence as a minor. They also filed two charges of aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence, as well as reckless driving, unsafe speed, purchase of an alcoholic beverage by a minor, and operating a motor vehicle as a minor with alcohol in their system. The defendant moved to dismiss the aggravated assault charges, claiming that the injuries did not present “substantial risk of death,” “permanent disfigurement,” or extended loss of use of a limb or organ, as required by statute. The court disagreed. Continue reading
A bill currently pending in the Pennsylvania Legislature, SB 1036, would significantly expand the use of ignition interlock devices in DUI cases. This is a device that tests breath alcohol content (BAC) and prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver’s BAC is above a certain level. Currently, state law only requires the device for individuals with more than one DUI conviction. The bill, if enacted, could actually enable people to begin driving again sooner after a DUI-related license suspension than before. At the same time, however, the bill has the support of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an organization which rarely supports legislation that makes things easier for DUI defendants.
State law defines an “ignition interlock system” as one that requires a driver to give a breath sample before starting the vehicle, and which prevents operation of the vehicle if the breath sample shows BAC of 0.025% or higher. The device is required for drivers with two convictions for DUI within a ten-year period, drivers whose license has been suspended for refusal to submit to chemical testing while under arrest, or who violated a previous order to use an ignition interlock system. Drivers must have the device professionally installed, and they are responsible for paying a monthly service fee. Once the state has issued a restricted license requiring ignition interlock, the driver must use the device for at least one year before obtaining an unrestricted license. Drivers with only one DUI conviction are not required to use an ignition interlock device at the end of their license suspension.
The bill would add a new section to the chapter on licensing of drivers to create an “ignition interlock limited license.” Under current law, a first conviction for DUI can result in license suspension of twelve to eighteen months. A person’s license can also be suspended for refusing to submit to chemical testing. Instead of an automatic license suspension, the proposed new law would give drivers the option of continuing to drive with the use of an ignition interlock device. The amount of time an individual has this type of license would be credited to any other period of time they would be required to have an ignition interlock system under current law for the same alleged offense. Continue reading
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania vacated the sentence in a case involving a range of charges, from vehicular homicide to driving under the influence (DUI), finding that the trial court failed to merge the offenses when pronouncing sentence. Commonwealth v. Tanner, 61 A.3d 1043 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2013). The “merger doctrine” requires a court, when sentencing a defendant for multiple convictions, to combine all offenses that arise from a single act and impose a sentence based on the most serious offense. In practice, this means that a court cannot impose multiple consecutive prison sentences if the convictions are all based on one act or incident.
According to the court’s order, the accident in question occurred in December 2010. The defendant’s vehicle reportedly crossed into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with another vehicle. Two passengers in the other vehicle suffered serious injuries, and one of them died several days later. A Pennsylvania State Trooper who arrived at the scene later testified that the defendant’s eyes were “bloodshot and glassy” and that he could smell alcohol on her breath. A blood sample taken from the defendant about one hour after the accident reportedly showed a blood alcohol content of 0.18%.
The defendant pleaded guilty to three charges: homicide by motor vehicle while driving under the influence of alcohol, for the death of the passenger in the other vehicle; aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence of alcohol, for the injury to another passenger in that vehicle; and driving under the influence at the “highest rate” of alcohol, for the underlying act of driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.16% or higher. The trial court sentenced her to three consecutive sentences, one for each offense, at the “aggravated range” allowed by law. This resulted in a total prison sentence of between 71 and 142 months in prison. The defendant appealed the court’s denial of her post-sentence motion. Continue reading
A driver appealed the suspension of his driver’s license to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, arguing that the trial court lacked sufficient evidence and committed several legal errors. The Commonwealth Court disagreed and affirmed the suspension. Blalock v. Commonwealth, No. 1592 C.D. 2012, opinion (Pa. Commw. Ct., May 28, 2013). In its order, the court stated that it could only consider whether the trial court had abused its discretion, not whether it got the facts wrong. Since license suspension is a civil proceeding rather than a criminal one, the burden of proof is much lower for the state. Both the trial court and the Commonwealth Court relied on the arresting officers’ testimony that the driver showed “signs of intoxication” during the arrest.
The driver’s arrest occurred in the early morning of February 23, 2012. According to witnesses, he was driving down the center of the road when he collided with another vehicle. The other vehicle was allegedly unable to avoid the collision. He continued for another 100 yards, then left his vehicle and ran into the woods. The driver reportedly told police that he swerved to avoid hitting a deer, then ran into the woods to look for the deer. The driver also stated that he hit his head during the collision, and that this injury might have affected his behavior.
Police stated that the driver exhibited signs of intoxication, such as “slow and deliberate” movements and speech, confusion, and a “faint to moderate” smell of alcohol. He allegedly did not perform well on field sobriety tests, and the officers said that he “exhibited no outward signs of injury.” The officers claim that they read the Form DL-26 warnings to him, which advise of the consequences of refusing chemical testing, and that he signed the form and refused to submit to tests. He later pleaded guilty to careless driving and failure to stay in his lane of traffic. The Department of Transportation (DOT) suspended his license for one year, which the law allows if a DUI suspect refuses chemical testing. He appealed to the Court of Common Pleas. Continue reading