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Strawn v. Commonwealth

July 24, 2009

DALE LAMAR STRAWN, APPELLANT
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION



The opinion of the court was delivered by: President Judge Leadbetter

Argued: June 10, 2009

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge, HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge, HONORABLE DORIS A. SMITH-RIBNER, Judge, HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge, HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge.

OPINION

Dale Lamar Strawn (Strawn) appeals from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County which denied Strawn's statutory appeal and directed the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing (DOT), to reinstate three suspensions of his motor vehicle operating privilege imposed pursuant to Section 1532(b) of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa. C.S. § 1532(b). After review, we affirm.

On September 18, 2007, Strawn was arrested following a police chase and charged with numerous offenses under the Vehicle Code.*fn1 On February 1, 2008, Strawn pled guilty to: 1) Driving Under the Influence (DUI) in violation of 75 Pa. C.S. § 3802(b); 2) leaving the scene of an accident in violation of 75 Pa. C.S. § 3743(a); 3) reckless driving in violation of 75 Pa. C.S. § 3736(a); and 4) fleeing a police officer in violation of 75 Pa. C.S. § 3733(a). By separate notices dated March 3, 2008, DOT notified Strawn that his operating privileges were being suspended for three years pursuant to Section 3804 (e)(2)(i)*fn2 and Section 1532 (b)*fn3 of the Vehicle Code as follows:

1) for his conviction of DUI-BAC.10<.16, a="" one="" year="">

2) for his conviction of fleeing a police officer, a one year suspension;

3) for his conviction of reckless driving, a six month suspension; and

4) for his conviction of leaving the scene of an accident, a six month suspension.

Strawn filed a timely appeal,*fn4 which the trial court denied based on this court's decision in Reinhart v. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, 946 A.2d 167 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008), and ordered that the three suspensions be reinstated. This appeal followed.

Strawn argues that the trial court erred in not applying the "single criminal episode" analysis set forth by our Supreme Court in Freundt v. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, 584 Pa. 283, 883 A.2d 503 (2005), to determine that only one suspension may be imposed upon him for his multiple non-mergeable offenses which occurred in that one incident. Strawn asserts that regardless of whether a licensee commits Vehicle Code violations or drug offenses, the proper inquiry is to determine whether the violations or offenses resulted from a single criminal episode, citing Drabic v. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, 588 Pa. 670, 906 A.2d 1153 (2006). According to Strawn, Drabic did not change Freundt's holding, but instead, reaffirmed it; and, therefore, under any subsection of Section 1532 of the Vehicle Code, DOT may impose only a single suspension for a single criminal episode. Strawn asserts that his actions on the night of September 18, 2007, constituted a single criminal episode for which only one suspension could be imposed, that being the one year suspension for his DUI conviction. Strawn would have this court overrule our prior decision in Reinhart as being contrary to the Supreme Court's decisions in both Freundt and Drabic.

DOT counters that although Strawn's multiple Vehicle Code violations arose from the same incident, that is, the motor vehicle accident and subsequent police chase on the evening of September 18, 2007, this does not mean that his actions comprised a single criminal episode or offense for the purpose of suspending his driver's license. DOT asserts that under the reasoning of both Zimmerman v. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, 759 A.2d 953 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000), and Drabic, which this court adopted and applied in Reinhart, Strawn's convictions for reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, and fleeing a police officer do not merge because each violation is an offense with distinct elements arising from different acts. Therefore, DOT argues, the six month suspension imposed for his conviction of reckless driving, the six month suspension imposed for leaving the scene of an accident, and the one year suspension imposed for fleeing a police officer, were properly reinstated by the trial court, as they do not merge into his one year suspension for DUI.

In Reinhart, the court was faced with a licensee who had been convicted of three motor vehicle violations stemming from an automobile accident, specifically, DUI, reckless driving, and leaving the scene of an accident. Licensee received three separate notices from DOT suspending his operating privilege for a total of 2 1/2 years. Licensee's appeal was denied as to the DUI suspension, but sustained as to the suspensions for reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident. While the trial court held that the issue was not one of merger, because none of the three offenses Licensee was convicted of was a lesser included offense of the other, it in effect "merged" the suspensions, agreeing that the conviction for each offense arose from a single criminal episode. This resulted in a one year suspension of Licensee's operating privilege.

On further appeal, DOT argued that the "single criminal episode" analysis of Freundt applied only to non-motor vehicle violations and that Drabic's "lesser included offense" analysis applied because it similarly concerned motor vehicle violations. The court then provided a thorough analysis of both cases, recognizing that the distinction lay in whether the underlying convictions were for crimes unrelated to the operation of a motor vehicle, such as the unlawful possession of drugs in Freundt, or whether the underlying crimes were moving violations, as in Drabic and the matter sub judice. In Freundt, the licensee was charged with and convicted of 16 counts of fraudulently acquiring a controlled substance, for which DOT had issued 16 separate notices of suspension pursuant to Section 1532 (c) of the Vehicle Code. We explained that because the Supreme Court had reasoned that the General Assembly's use of the words "conviction" and "offense" in Section 1532 (c) meant they intended for the words to have two separate meanings, it followed that "since a conviction of an offense is a conviction stemming from a criminal episode, an offense for the purpose of &sect; 1532(c) is a single criminal episode."*fn5 We concluded therefore, that Freundt stood for the proposition ...


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