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Schindler v. Commonwealth

June 1, 2009

DEREK DANIEL SCHINDLER
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, BUREAU OF DRIVER LICENSING, APPELLANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Leavitt

Submitted: December 19, 2008

BEFORE: HONORABLE DORIS A. SMITH-RIBNER, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE JIM FLAHERTY, Senior Judge.

OPINION

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing (Department), appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (trial court) that sustained the appeal of Derek Daniel Schindler (Schindler) from a one-year suspension of his operating privileges for refusal to submit to chemical testing. Concluding that the arresting officer lacked reasonable grounds to believe that Schindler had been operating his vehicle under the influence of alcohol, we affirm.

On August 28, 2007, Schindler was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance in violation of Section 3731 of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa. C.S. §3731. On September 20, 2007, the Department notified Schindler that his operating privileges would be suspended for one year as a result of his refusal to submit to chemical testing on August 28, 2007, which violated Section 1547(b)(1)(i) of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa. C.S. §1547(b)(1)(i).*fn1

Schindler appealed to the trial court, and on April 17, 2008, the trial court held a de novo hearing.

The Department presented the testimony of Patrolman David Sciullo, a seven-year veteran of the Ross Township Police Department. Officer Sciullo testified that on August 28, 2007, at 3:15 a.m., he was dispatched to a single vehicle rollover accident. Officer Sciullo arrived at the accident scene at 3:21 a.m., and found a red Chevrolet Cavalier on its roof in the middle of the roadway. Schindler, who was 22 years old at the time, was outside of the vehicle sitting on the side of the roadway.

According to Officer Sciullo, Schindler stated that he had been driving home from a friend's house and the next thing he remembered was the car had flipped over. Schindler believed he had fallen asleep at the wheel. Reproduced Record at 18a (R.R. __). Officer Sciullo testified that Schindler did not want to be taken to the hospital for treatment. Officer Sciullo stated that Schindler's speech was slurred, his gait was unsteady and he had trouble maintaining his balance. Officer Sciullo did not recall seeing any injuries on Schindler.

Officer Sciullo requested that Schindler perform three field sobriety tests: the walk-and-turn, the one-leg stand, and the finger-to-nose test. Schindler failed each test. Concluding that Schindler was under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance, Officer Sciullo handcuffed Schindler, placed him into the patrol car and advised him he was under arrest for DUI. Officer Sciullo further advised Schindler of the standard chemical test warnings, including that his operating privilege could be suspended for one year if he refused to consent.

Schindler initially agreed to the chemical test and was transported to UPMC Passavant Hospital. However, Schindler changed his mind. When they arrived at the hospital, Officer Sciullo read the warnings from Form DL-26 verbatim to Schindler. Schindler refused either to be tested or to sign the form. Schindler was then transported to the police station and detained overnight.

On cross-examination, Officer Sciullo was shown five photos of Schindler taken after the accident that showed cuts and bruises on his head, knees and feet. Officer Sciullo stated that he did not recall seeing these injuries after the accident but acknowledged that it was still dark when he arrived on the scene. Upon further questioning, Officer Sciullo admitted that he administered a Breathalyzer test to Schindler at the scene, and the test ruled out the presence of alcohol in Schindler's system. Officer Sciullo also acknowledged that he searched Schindler's vehicle for pills, vials and illicit drugs but found nothing. He also acknowledged the absence of track marks on Schindler's arms. Finally, Officer Sciullo acknowledged that Schindler's car had rolled over and that broken glass was strewn around the interior of the car. Although Officer Sciullo did not recall observing injuries to Schindler's feet, he did recall that Schindler was wearing sandals.

Officer Sciullo further acknowledged on cross-examination that when Schindler was released from jail the next morning, his mother transported him to UPMC St. Margaret, where Schindler was examined and underwent, inter alia, a urinanalysis. Officer Sciullo conceded that the emergency room report showed that testing had ruled out any alcohol or illegal controlled substances in Schindler's blood, and that he had sustained a closed head trauma and other injuries in the motor vehicle accident.

Schindler offered the testimony of his mother, who picked him up from the police station, took the photographs of his injuries and then transported him to UPMC St. Margaret. Mrs. Schindler testified that when she picked up her son, he was still woozy; his face was swollen; he had blood on his shirt; his knees and feet were cut and bloody; and he had extracted some glass from his cuts. R.R. 32a. According to Mrs. Schindler, her son had suffered a concussion and she was instructed to observe her son for symptoms of a head injury and monitor his sleep. The emergency room report was offered into evidence.*fn2

The trial court sustained Schindler's appeal, concluding that Officer Sciullo did not have reasonable grounds to believe that Schindler was operating his vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. The trial court also held that Schindler proved he was incapable of making a knowing and ...


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