The Pennsylvania State Legislature is raising the stakes for DUI offenses.
Responding to what Montgomery County State Senator Rafferty recently described as the “terrible and chilling effect on DUI convictions” stemming from the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s 2013 decision in Commonwealth v. Musau (covered in depth here), the state legislature is moving closer to passing noteworthy changes to Pennsylvania’s DUI laws. These changes, should they become law, will mean significant additional penalty exposure for repeat-DUI offenders.
Senate Bill 1239 modifies language found in sections 3803 and 3806 of the Vehicle Code, part of Pennsylvania’s DUI law. Section 3803 serves as the grading section, while section 3806 defines what constitutes a prior offense. Important new language has been inserted into the proposed amendment since we first announced it here. Senator Rafferty’s amendment, which passed unanimously out of the Senate in March and reported unanimously out of the House Transportation Committee last week, aims to correct two major technical flaws in the current law that have been exposed by the judicial branch.
In Musau, the Court read the language of section 3803 strictly, specifically emphasizing the word “notwithstanding,” in deciding that the text of the statute was designed to grade repeat-DUI offenses where a BAC test was refused as misdemeanors of the first degree, yet cap the available punishment to a period of six months. As Senator Rafferty makes clear in his sponsoring memorandum, the major purpose of this amendment is to correct this technical flaw by removing that troublesome language. Still, the bill now goes further in revamping PA DUI law.
Significantly, the bill also closes what has been considered a major loophole in applying the recidivist sentencing provision, section 3806, under the present DUI law. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had previously held, in Commonwealth v. Haig, 981 A.2d 902 (2009), that behavior subsequent to the DUI violation in a specific case was beyond the scope of the prior offense provision during sentencing. What this means, in current practice, is that an individual can be convicted as a first-time offender on multiple DUI arrests, even if those offenses were committed after the violation in the case under judgment. This is an anomaly favoring criminal defendants that the legislature has been pressed, by the District Attorney’s Association among others, to correct.
The new language shifts the relevant recidivism time-period to the ten-year period before sentencing—thus making sure that any and all DUI convictions in that span will be counted towards the prior offense grading and penalty scheme. Similarly, the language “whether or not judgment of sentence has been imposed for the violation” is now inserted. Ostensibly, this language avoids any ambiguity for the interval where there is a conviction, but final judgment of sentence is deferred. In layman’s terms, this means that drivers with multiple DUI offenses will be sentenced to much harsher penalties even if they committed multiple offenses within a very short time period.
Coming out of the Senate unanimously, and now under consideration by the whole House, Senate Bill 1239 is very likely to be sitting on the governor’s desk shortly. The consequence of this amendment’s passage will be serious for DUI offenders across the Commonwealth, who have been the major beneficiaries of the Haig and Musau decisions. Under the bill, a repeat DUI offender, no matter the disposition or timing of the cases, may face a sentence of 2 ½ to 5 years imprisonment.