Driver’s License Restored by Plea Bargain Re-suspended on Appeal
A Pennsylvania man got less than he (plea) bargained for recently when the Commonwealth Court (the administration-centered arm of Pennsylvania’s appellate courts) ruled that the plea bargain he had reached with state prosecutors regarding his DUI conviction did not apply to the administrative license suspension which the trial court had rescinded. The case is Richard H. Peters v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Dept. of Trans., Bureau of Licensing, No. 1418 C.D. 2009 (Pa.Cmwlth. 2010).
Mr. Peters was arrested on St. Patrick’s Day in 2008 for DUI with the aggravating factor that his BAC was in excess of 0.10. While awaiting trial on that charge, Mr. Peters was arrested again on May 3rd and charged with another DUI. Mr. Peters and the District Attorney entered into a plea agreement for the second DUI in which Mr. Peters would plead guilty and the State would seek to sentence him as a first-time offender. Strictly speaking, plea agreements are only binding on the parties who make them, i.e., Mr. Peters and the prosecuting agency here. The court does not have to accept the agreement, but they usually do and this court did. A short time later, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation informed Mr. Peters that it still intended to suspend his license for one year, as it is required to do with second-time DUI offenders. Mr. Peters appealed to the trial court, which ruled that it would be unfair to deny Mr. Peters the benefit of his plea bargain and ordered the DOT to reinstate his license.
The DOT believed that they were legally obligated to revoke the license by the statute and legally forbidden from revoking it under the lower court’s ruling, so they appealed to the Commonwealth Court. This court ruled that because license suspensions are considered civil administrative measures to ensure safe drivers and not criminal punishments, the trial court lacked the authority to order the DOT to restore the license. The Commonwealth Court cited a passage from the case of Stair v. Dept of Transp., 911 A.2d 1014, 1018 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006) which said:
…neither the district attorney in plea bargaining, nor the court of common pleas when deciding a criminal matter, has jurisdiction to bind [PennDOT] to withdraw a civil license suspension. The statutory suspensions following…a conviction for driving under the influence are not bargaining chips to be traded in exchange for criminal convictions; rather, they are mandatory civil penalties, imposed not for penal purposes, but to protect the public by providing an effective means of denying an intoxicated motorist the privilege of using our roads.
Since the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation was not bound by the agreement nor by the ruling of the trial court, it was both authorized and required to suspend Mr. Peters’s license. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s order and the DOT did re-suspend the license for 1 year. This case illustrates an important point. It’s true in all criminal cases, but especially important in DUI because it’s sommon for there to be civil consequences in addiotn to criminal: reaching a plea bargain in your criminal case does not forestall and civil actions the government may be authorized or required to take against you. Something to keep in mind if your case involves forfeitures, suspensions, or administrative driving restrictions.