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WARNER v. TROMBETTA

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA


July 6, 1972

Larry WARNER and Ray Slaseman, On Behalf of Themselves and All Others Similarly Situated,
v.
J.A. TROMBETTA, Director, Pennsylvania Bureau of Traffic Safety et al.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: NEALON

MEMORANDUM

NEALON, District Judge.

Plaintiffs have initiated this class action on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated *fn1" seeking injunctive relief and the convening of a three-judge court to declare Sections 616 (a)(3) and 1417(b) of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code unconstitutional in that they are violative of the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court being satisfied that the necessary jurisdictional prerequisites had been met, this statutory three-judge court was convened under 28 U.S.C. § 2281. Bailey v. Patterson, 369 U.S. 31, 82 S. Ct. 549, 7 L. Ed. 2d 512 (1960); Ex parte Poresky, 290 U.S. 30, 54 S. Ct. 3, 78 L. Ed. 152 (1933).

 Plaintiffs' attack on § 616(a)(3) *fn2" is centered on its requirement that the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, upon proof of conviction that a motorist has violated Section 1027 of the Motor Vehicle Code, to wit: leaving the scene of an accident or failing to identify oneself at the scene of the accident, *fn3" must automatically revoke the motorist's license for the period of one year. Plaintiffs claim that this procedure of mandatory revocation without a prior administrative hearing or opportunity to appeal *fn4" violates the due process requirements announced by the Supreme Court in Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535, 91 S. Ct. 1586, 29 L. Ed. 2d 90 (1971). Further, they maintain that 75 P.S. § 1417(b), which provides that any license that has been suspended or revoked by the Secretary pursuant to § 616(a)(3) shall remain suspended or revoked until the motorist furnishes proof of financial responsibility, denies plaintiffs equal protection of the laws in that it discriminates against indigents. *fn5"

 The Stipulation of Facts entered into between the parties reveals that on February 24, 1970 plaintiff Larry Warner pled guilty to violating § 1027(b) of the Motor Vehicle Code for failing to stop and disclose his identity at the scene of an accident in which he was involved. Pursuant to § 616(a)(3), defendant revoked Warner's license on July 17, 1970 for a period of one year, said period expiring on July 17, 1971. Although the revocation period has expired, since Warner is financially unable to afford insurance or post security, his license has not as yet been reinstated. He claims that he has been irreparably harmed by the revocation in that he is a professional truckdriver and, therefore, has been deprived of his livelihood. As relief, plaintiff Warner requests an order directing the defendants to restore his operating license without requiring proof of financial responsibility. Plaintiff Slaseman, also an indigent, pled guilty to the same offense on August 17, 1970, and on May 27, 1971 his operator's license was revoked by defendants for a period of one year. Since the revocation period has not expired, plaintiff Slaseman requests the court to direct defendants to hold an administrative hearing on the issue of plaintiff's license revocation and to require defendants to reinstate his license without proof of financial responsibility.

 In support of their due process contentions, plaintiffs rely on the recent Supreme Court case of Bell v. Burson, supra as controlling and assert that its holding precludes Pennsylvania from revoking their drivers' licenses under § 616(a)(3) without providing a prior administrative hearing that meets the requirements of due process. In Bell, the Supreme Court recognized that a driver's license, whether labeled as a "right" or a "privilege", creates an interest which is important to a licensee and, once issued, its continued possession may become essential to the pursuit of a livelihood. Accordingly, the Court held that where the statute is fault oriented, before a State may suspend the license of an uninsured motorist for failure to show proof of financial responsibility, it must provide a prior hearing on the question of his potential fault or liability. Id at 542, 91 S. Ct. 1586. See also Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254, 90 S. Ct. 1011, 25 L. Ed. 2d 287 (1970); Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 89 S. Ct. 1820, 23 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1969).

 However, the Commonwealth contends that Bell is not controlling here because Pennsylvania's statutory scheme is significantly different from the statute considered in Bell. It argues that since Georgia's Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act made fault for the accident an important factor in the State's decision to suspend an individual's operating license, a prior hearing on this issue was necessary to satisfy the essentials of due process. Bell v. Burson, supra at 541, 91 S. Ct. 1586. In contrast, the Commonwealth contends that because fault for the accident is irrelevant to the Pennsylvania scheme and that any motorist who violates § 1027(b) is charged with notice that his license will be revoked regardless of culpability, a hearing prior to revocation would serve no valid purpose other than requiring the Commonwealth to prove that his conviction record was properly made, a ministerial act which should not be necessary. Cf. Stauffer v. Weedlun, 188 Neb. 105, 195 N.W. 2d 218 (1972). However, this very argument was raised and rejected recently in Reese v. Kassab, 334 F. Supp. 744 (W.D. Pa. 1971) where a three-judge district court held that the procedure under Pennsylvania's "Point System" Act providing for the suspension of a driver's license without a prior administrative hearing violated the requirements of procedural due process as set down in Bell. Reese v. Kassab, 334 F. Supp. supra at 745. There, the court pointed out

 

"that even if the convictions cannot be contested, there still remain the possibilities, among others, that the convictions were those of another person with the same name; that the fines and costs were paid on an information at variance with that for which the minor judiciary entered a conviction as plaintiff contends occurred in this case; . . . or that there were errors on the report of conviction form. In none of these instances is there a provision for a hearing before suspension even though notice of the assessment of points is given. Notice without opportunity to rectify error obviously is not sufficient."

 Id. at 747.

 This same reasoning applies with equal force to the instant case. The fatal defect in the statute at bar is that there is no provision made for any type of administrative hearing with notice and an opportunity to be heard before the revocation action becomes effective. Hence, the possibility exists that error in a conviction record could result in the revocation of the license of an innocent motorist. Under these circumstances, we conclude that the essentials of due process require the opportunity for some sort of meaningful administrative hearing prior to the revocation of an operator's license.

 However, contrary to what plaintiffs contend, there will be no necessity to make a determination of fault for the accident at the hearing, for as stated earlier, under § 616(a)(3) license revocation is based not on responsibility for causing the accident, but on irresponsible activity after involvement in an accident. Certainly, it is a valid exercise of the state's police power to revoke the license of a motorist who has been convicted of leaving the scene of an accident in which he was involved, whether or not he was responsible for causing the accident. Such a revocation is a reasonable means of advancing the state's legitimate interest of protecting the public from those who have demonstrated by their conduct that their driving presents a hazard to life and property. Consequently, while the Secretary may justifiably conclude that a convicted defendant has, in fact, committed the crime, nevertheless, due process would require the availability of a hearing at which a motorist would have the opportunity to correct any error in the Secretary's record of conviction. *fn6"

 Next, plaintiffs contend that § 1417(b), which requires proof of financial responsibility before a license revoked pursuant to § 616(a)(3) may be reinstated, unlawfully discriminates against low income licensees who do not have sufficient funds to procure insurance coverage or make security deposits. They concede that Pennsylvania may have required all motorists to carry liability insurance or post security as a pre-condition to the issuance of a license. Bell v. Burson, supra ; Ex parte Poresky, 290 U.S. 30, 54 S. Ct. 3, 78 L. Ed. 152 (1933); Hess v. Pawloski, 274 U.S. 352, 47 S. Ct. 632, 71 L. Ed. 1091 (1927). However, they argue that where no such requirement was made by Pennsylvania initially, to selectively require it only of those whose licenses were suspended or revoked is an unreasonable classification in violation of the equal protection of the laws. With this contention we do not agree. If Pennsylvania may legitimately demand such a requirement before the issuance of a license or vehicle registration, the requirement becomes no less valid or reasonable if Pennsylvania elects to enact a less drastic form of legislation, i.e. the requiring of proof of financial responsibility from an uninsured motorist who has demonstrated a lack of judgment and public responsibility by failing to stop and identify himself at the scene of an accident in which he was involved. See MacQuarrie v. McLaughlin, 294 F. Supp. 176 (D. Mass. 1968), aff'd. 394 U.S. 456, 89 S. Ct. 1224, 22 L. Ed. 2d 417 (1969). See also, Latham v. Tynan, 435 F.2d 1248 (2d Cir. 1970); Perez v. Campbell, 421 F.2d 619 (9th Cir. 1970); Rivas v. Cozens, 327 F. Supp. 867 (N.D. Cal. 1971); Escobedo v. State of California, Department of Motor Vehicles, 222 P. 2d 1, 35 Cal. 2d 870 (1970). The purpose behind such legislation is not to punish the convicted driver, but to protect others on the highways by giving them some assurance that all drivers on the road will be able to pay for their accidents. *fn7" Indeed, Pennsylvania's scheme favors the poor by allowing every motorist to drive without any showing of financial responsibility at least until he has demonstrated by his conduct that he poses a potential threat to other users of the highways.

 Moreover, as pointed out in Rivas, supra, the victim of such irresponsible drivers often is himself financially unable to bear the costs of the damages inflicted on him. In this regard, far from being discriminated against, a poor person needs the protection of a financial responsibility law far more than an affluent person. Rivas v. Cozens supra at 872. Thus viewed, § 1417(b) does not unconstitutionally discriminate against the poor.

 The parties are requested to submit an appropriate order.


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