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COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. TERRENCE P. O'NEILL (09/11/86)

decided: September 11, 1986.

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, BUREAU OF TRAFFIC SAFETY, APPELLANT
v.
TERRENCE P. O'NEILL, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County in the case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Terrence O'Neill, No. 5019 February Term, 1983.

COUNSEL

Michael R. Deckman, Deputy Chief Counsel, with him, Spencer A. Manthorpe, Chief Counsel, and Jay C. Waldman, General Counsel, for appellant.

Kevin H. Wright, LaBrum and Doak, for appellee.

Judges Doyle and Colins, and Senior Judge Blatt, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Blatt. Judge Colins dissents.

Author: Blatt

[ 100 Pa. Commw. Page 449]

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation (Department), appeals the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court) which sustained Terrence P. O'Neill's appeal from a six-month suspension of his operator's license.

After being involved in a traffic accident, O'Neill was requested to take a breathalyzer test by the investigating police officer and he refused. The Department, therefore, suspended his license pursuant to Section 1547(b) of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa. C.S. ยง 1547(b). Upon O'Neill's appeal, the trial court conducted de novo hearings and, in overturning the suspension, held that, inasmuch as the officer did not conduct field sobriety tests, "there was no reasonable cause for the arrest."

The Department contends that the trial court erred*fn1 in concluding that the Commonwealth had not met its burden of proving that the arresting officer had reasonable grounds*fn2 to request a breathalyzer test. We agree.

[ 100 Pa. Commw. Page 450]

As noted in the trial court's opinion, the officer testified that, when he arrived at the scene of the accident, O'Neill had a strong odor of alcohol on his breath. The officer further testified that O'Neill said that he was coming from a party at the time of the accident. Finally, the officer stated that he conducted "walking and balancing" field sobriety tests. O'Neill's testimony contradicted that of the officer only with regard to the field sobriety tests. He admitted the fact of the accident and did not challenge the officer's statement as to the odor of alcohol on his breath or as to his attendance at a party prior to the accident. The trial court resolved the evidentiary conflict as to field sobriety tests in O'Neill's favor and concluded that the omission of these tests was fatal to the Department's case.

The standard for determining whether or not an arresting officer had the requisite reasonable grounds to request a breathalyzer has been summarized in Dreisbach as follows:

[w]hether evidence is sufficient to constitute 'reasonable grounds' can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. The test, however, is not very demanding. We note initially that, for 'reasonable grounds' to exist, the police officer obviously need not be correct in his belief that the motorist had been driving while intoxicated. We are dealing here with the authority to request a person to submit to a chemical test and not with the admission into evidence of the result of such a test. The only valid inquiry in this issue at the de novo hearing is whether, viewing the facts and circumstances as they appeared at the time, a ...


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