Over the summer, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down a new decision that may yet revolutionize DUI plea negotiations. In Bell v. Commonwealth, 2014 WL 3582707, the Court held that multiple operating privilege suspensions of listed violations under 75 Pa.C.S. §§ 1532(a)(1) of the Vehicle Code are properly imposed following a conviction of each enumerated offense listed therein, whether or not the listed offense may have merged for criminal sentencing purposes. Taken to its logical endpoint, this decision means that an individual convicted of the listed offenses could be subject to multiple license suspensions (a civil sanction) for multiple count convictions stemming from a single incident, even if those multiple counts merged for criminal sentencing purposes. If your case falls within the statutory list of offenses, what specific plea deal your attorney negotiates will have a major impact on your life even beyond the applicable minimum jail time.
While driving home from a funeral, William Bell crossed the center line of the road, striking and killing a woman driving her own car. Bell was convicted on three separate charges stemming from this incident: Homicide by Vehicle While DUI, DUI – Highest Rate, and Homicide by Vehicle. He was sentenced to three years in prison. Sometime thereafter, Bell received official notice that PennDOT was suspending his license one year for the DUI, and three years each for the Homicide by Vehicle charges, for a total of seven years. Bell argued that, because the two Homicide by Vehicle and Homicide by Vehicle While DUI charges merged during sentencing, only one three-year-sentence was appropriate under the law in his case (he did not contest the one-year-suspension from the DUI conviction). The Court, attempting to align its prior case law, spoke at length about its previous decisions. First, it noted that the two separate Homicide by Vehicle charges should not have merged. While this may have answered the question sub judice in full, the Court continued and extended its previous rejection of the argument that the legislature intended separate offenses from a single criminal episode to merge for civil penalty purposes, reading the phrase “any of the following offenses” to be wholly inclusive. The Court reasoned that, had the legislature intended some form of merger for the civil sanction of license suspension resulting from severe misuse of the driving privilege, it could easily have provided language to that effect.
Justices Todd and Baer concurred with the Court’s judgment, but wrote separately to point out that they believed that any discussion in the majority opinion of the proper interpretation of 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1532, and more broadly, the application of merger principles to civil sanctions generally, to be obiter dictum and thus non-precedential. This is because the trial court’s error in merging the two separate charges in the first place, in their opinion, mooted the larger issue in this case. If this conclusion holds, the holding in this case regarding section 1532(a)(1) offenses will not be binding in future cases.
Civil penalties and other collateral consequences stemming from even a single criminal conviction can have consequences even greater than the criminal penalty itself. To wade through these murky waters, it is important to have a trial lawyer well-versed in the relevant law. To speak with a Fairlie & Lippy lawyer about your case, please contact us today.
For reference, Sections 1532(a), (a)(1) is provided below. These are the charges that must be dropped for a client to avoid exposure to a lengthy license suspension.