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Court Vacates DUI Sentence Based on Pennsylvania’s Merger Doctrine

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.

The Superior Court ignored the two claims raised by the defendant on appeal, deciding instead to review the legality of the sentence itself. It noted that it has the authority to make this review on its own motion. The merger doctrine applies when all of the offenses “arise from a single criminal act” and “all of the statutory elements of one of the offenses” are included in another one of the offenses. Tanner, 61 A.3d at 1046, quoting Commonwealth v. Baldwin, 985 A.2d 830, 833 (Pa. 2009).

The “homicide by vehicle while DUI” statute makes the offense a felony of the second degree, with a penalty between three and ten years’ imprisonment for a single incident. The trial court’s sentence therefore differs significantly from the maximum allowable sentence under the merger doctrine. The Superior Court first found that all three offenses arose from a single act, the car accident. Since the offenses of vehicular homicide while DUI and aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI both require DUI as an underlying offense, the court concluded that the second prong of the merger doctrine had been met. It ruled that the entire sentence was illegal and remanded the case to the trial court.

If you have been charged with alleged DUI in Pennsylvania, you need the assistance of a qualified and skilled DUI lawyer to advise you of your rights and help you plan the best possible defense. Zachary B. Cooper, Attorney at Law, P.C. has dedicated 100% of his practice to DUI defense. We are available to help you 24/7. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us online or at (215) 542-0800.