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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Finds No Error in Admitting Defendant’s Prior DUI Conviction into Evidence

Matthew Scott Diehl appealed from his 9 1/2 to 19 years’ sentence after a jury convicted him of various DUI-related charges, including homicide by vehicle while DUI and third-degree murder. Diehl contended the trial court erred when it allowed the state to introduce evidence of his 2005 DUI conviction and alcohol awareness classes as evidence of malice in support of the third-degree murder charge. The appeals court disagreed.

In the early morning hours of April 27, 2013, Fire Chief Rodney Miller of the Loganville Fire Department – the victim – was closing lanes of I-83 to allow for an emergency helicopter landing. To divert traffic, Chief Miller parked his truck diagonally across both lanes. The truck was equipped with oscillating emergency lights.

Testifying eyewitness Mathew Hopkins was driving southbound on the highway that morning and noticed flashing lights near the exit. Assuming there was a problem, he decelerated and turned on his flashers as he attempted to figure out what was going on. By the time he was close, he could make out Chief Miller’s pick-up truck with red flashing lights. He also saw that a person was emerging from behind the pick-up.

Hopkins noticed an SUV pass him to the right, pass Chief Miller’s truck, and strike the person at the shoulder of the highway, propelling the pedestrian approximately 20 feet in the air before he landed on the highway. Hopkins pulled over and called 911.

Another firefighter on the scene – Zach Immel – noticed Diehl’s Chevy Trailblazer with heavy front-end damage, including leaking and smoking. He asked Diehl what happened. Diehl said he had hit a deer. Other drivers soon informed Immel that a pedestrian had been struck. Immel returned to Diehl’s car and told him what he heard. Immel noticed a change in Diehl’s demeanor. Diehl was nervous and kept repeating that he had hit a deer.

Another officer – Trooper Confer – arrived and approached Diehl. He noticed the odor of alcohol on his breath, as well as his bloodshot and glassy eyes. Diehl admitted to drinking earlier that night. Trooper Confer performed field-sobriety tests and arrested Diehl. A later blood draw revealed that Diehl’s BAC was .118. Forensic investigation of the accident scene later confirmed that Diehl’s SUV struck Chief Miller.

Prior to trial, the Commonwealth filed a motion seeking to introduce evidence of Diehl’s 2005 and 2007 DUI convictions and alcohol awareness classes. At a subsequent hearing, defense counsel argued that admitting Diehl’s prior DUI convictions would lead the jury to convict based on those convictions rather than the facts of the case. In other words, the probative value would not be outweighed by the prejudice to Diehl.

The trial court allowed the Commonwealth to introduce the 2005 Pennsylvania DUI conviction, but only to the extent that it showed Diehl took classes focused on the dangers of drinking and driving. The trial court deemed the 2005 DUI conviction and education evidence relevant and admissible to prove mental state by showing that the appellant disregarded the specialized knowledge he had acquired regarding the dangers of drinking and driving. The trial court admonished, however, that the state would be “precluded from going into the details of that particular crash, as well as the 2007 DUI in Maryland.” The jury found Diehl not guilty of third-degree murder, but guilty of homicide by vehicle-DUI and all other counts.

On appeal, Diehl argued that allowing the jury to consider whether he “should have known better” because of his past DUI conviction and education unfairly negated the possibility that the jury would find he acted with mere ordinary negligence or without culpability. In response, the Commonwealth cited the practically unanimous opinion among courts in other jurisdictions that prior DUI offenses and DUI education programs are admissible to establish the mens rea (mental state) of third-degree murder or vehicular homicide.

The appeals court found compelling the reasons relied upon by other jurisdictions to admit prior DUI convictions and education classes as inferential evidence of a driver’s state of mind. At Diehl’s trial, the alternative proof of malice was only minimally effective, since evidence that the appellant disregarded an obvious emergency situation and failed to stop after his involvement in a serious collision was potentially dampened by his subsequent expressions of confusion, remorse, and concern, as well as by his willingness to cooperate fully with investigators. This conflict within the evidence enhanced the need for evidence as a means to infer the appellant’s state of mind at the time. His past experience with DUI and leaving the scene of an accident, and the special instruction he received on the dangers of drinking and driving, were, the appeals court reasoned, highly probative as to whether he knew better (than the average driver) about drinking and driving and leaving the scene of any accident.

Moreover, the appeals court noted, the trial court minimized any potential for unfair prejudice by instructing the jury that the evidence was admitted for the “very limited purpose” of showing Diehl’s knowledge of the dangers of drinking and driving.  Concluding that the probative value of the appellant’s 2005 DUI conviction and participation in DUI classes exceeded its potential for prejudice, the appeals court found no reversible error in the court’s evidentiary ruling.

Hiring the right attorney can make all the difference in the world.  If you find yourself arrested for a DUI, make sure you have a capable attorney on your side. Criminal defense attorney Zachary B. Cooper will be aggressive and will fight to make sure that your rights are protected so that you and your family can move on with your lives. Call (215) 542-0800 for a free consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Reverses DUI Defendant’s Grant of Early Parole, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, April 15, 2016.

Pennsylvania Appellate Court Holds DUI’s Can Occur on Private Roadways, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, April 1, 2016.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Driver’s Arrest Was Supported By Probable Cause, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, March 15, 2016.