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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Speedy Trial Rule Did Not Protect Evasive DUI Defendant

In October 2016, a lower court granted a defendant’s motion to dismiss the charges filed against him in July 1990 based on a violation of Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600 (prompt trial). On appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the Commonwealth argued that the trial court abused its discretion in granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The appeals court agreed and remanded, finding the defendant could not avail himself of the protections of the speedy trial rule if he himself was responsible for the delay.

The defendant was charged with DUI and reckless driving in 1990. Soon afterward, a preliminary hearing was held, and the defendant was arraigned. In November 1990, the defendant failed to appear at court, and the judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest. In the intervening 26 years, the defendant was arrested and incarcerated multiple times in various jurisdictions and resided at the same address for at least the first nine of these years. Sometime in the fall of 2016, the defendant received a mailing from the Sheriff’s office indicating that a bench warrant existed for his arrest and that he should turn himself in. He turned himself in in October 2016. The bench warrant was lifted, and a pretrial conference was scheduled.Soon afterward, the defendant filed an Omnibus Pretrial Motion, alleging that his rights under Rule 600 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure were violated and that the charges should be dismissed. He further argued that the breathalyzer test results should be suppressed as a result of a failure to comply with the appropriate regulations pertaining to breath testing. At the conclusion of a hearing, the trial court granted the motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 600. The Commonwealth appealed.

Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 600 was designed to protect a defendant’s speedy trial rights, as well as society’s right to effective prosecution of criminal cases. The rule mandates that a defendant must be tried on criminal charges no later than 365 days after the criminal complaint is filed. However, periods of delay caused by a defendant are excluded from the computation of the length of time of any pretrial incarceration.

The appeals court first explained there was no dispute the mechanical run date for the defendant’s trial expired in 1991. The question presented on appeal was whether the ensuing 25 years, between the time the defendant failed to appear in November 1990 and when he surrendered with counsel in October 2016, was excludable time attributed solely to the defendant or whether the Commonwealth had the burden to demonstrate it exercised due diligence in bringing him to trial.

The Commonwealth argued that it had no requirement to seek out the defendant during that 25-year period, and all the excludable time resulted from the defendant’s failure to appear. The appeals court agreed.

The general rule is that, when a period of delay is caused by the defendant’s willful failure to appear at a court proceeding of which he has notice, exclusion is warranted. Furthermore, if a defendant is deemed to have had reasonable notice of court proceedings but fails to appear, the Commonwealth’s due diligence in attempting to locate him need not be assessed.

When a defendant undertakes to accept the status of bail during the pendency of court proceedings, the appeals court explained, he assumes the responsibility of making himself available for any court appearances required of him in connection with the action, upon receipt of reasonable notice. To focus solely upon the conduct of the Commonwealth not only ignores the defendant’s dereliction of an obligation but also places him in the position of possibly benefiting from his own wrongdoing. When the delay results from the defendant’s willful failure to appear at the appointed time, it is obviously not the type of harm envisioned in the protections sought to be afforded by the speedy trial guarantee. To the contrary, the delay is directly attributable to the fact that he was in a bail status, rather than in custody, and that he deliberately abused that prerogative.

While the appeals court appreciated the trial court’s concern that the defendant’s ability to mount a defense to a 25-year-old DUI charge was thwarted, it emphasized that the delay was caused by his own deliberate actions. Thus, the trial court erred in shifting the burden to the Commonwealth to prove its due diligence. The court therefore reversed the order granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss and remanded for further proceedings.

If you find yourself arrested for a DUI, you should hire a capable attorney as soon as practicable. Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Zachary B. Cooper can zealously fight to defend your charge. Call (215) 542-0800 for a consultation to discuss your legal options.

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