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Snyder v. Commonwealth

July 28, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Cohn Jubelirer

Submitted: April 16, 2010



The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing (Department), appeals from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (trial court), which sustained James B. Snyder, Jr.'s (Licensee) appeal from the Department's suspension of his operating privileges. The Department suspended Licensee's operating privileges pursuant to Section 1547(b) of the Vehicle Code (Code), 75 Pa. C.S. § 1547(b), commonly referred to as the Implied Consent Law,*fn1 because he refused to submit to chemical testing following his arrest for driving under the influence (DUI). The Department contends that the trial court erred as a matter of law in sustaining Licensee's appeal when it determined that the Pittsburgh Port Authority Transit (Port Authority) police officers who arrested Licensee for DUI did not have jurisdiction to do so.

On February 4, 2008, the Department notified Licensee that his operating privileges were being suspended for one year pursuant to the Implied Consent Law, effective March 10, 2008, because Licensee refused to submit to chemical testing on December 23, 2007. Licensee timely appealed, and the trial court held a de novo hearing on August 21, 2008, during which Port Authority Police Officers Hillgartner and O'Malley testified.

The undisputed testimony of Officer Hillgartner established that, at approximately 2:00 a.m. on December 23, 2007, while conducting a roving patrol of the Port Authority bus routes in the vicinity of the intersection of Wood Street and Sixth Avenue, Officers Hillgartner and O'Malley observed a vehicle driven by Licensee make an illegal left turn from Wood Street onto Liberty Avenue. Officer Hillgartner testified that, although Licensee was on a City of Pittsburgh roadway when he committed the violation, a "Port Authority [train] Station is adjacent to [the] intersection [of Wood and Liberty]." (Hr'g Tr. at 12, R.R. at 22a.) Officer Hillgartner confirmed that a map introduced into evidence by Licensee depicted the location of the Wood Street train station as being adjacent to the intersection of Wood Street and Liberty Avenue. (Licensee Exhibit B, R.R. at 52a; Hr'g Tr. at 11, R.R. at 21a.) Officer Hillgartner testified that he and Officer O'Malley pursued Licensee's vehicle through the illegal left turn onto Liberty Avenue and the immediate, legal right turn onto Seventh Avenue where they initiated a traffic stop prior to the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Penn Avenue. Upon requesting Licensee's driver's license, vehicle registration information, and insurance, Officer Hillgartner noticed the smell of alcohol emanating from the vehicle. Licensee agreed to exit the vehicle and conduct a series of standardized field sobriety tests, which he failed. Licensee additionally submitted to a portable breath test, which tested positive for the presence of alcohol. After failing the field sobriety tests and the portable breath test, Officer Hillgartner placed Licensee under arrest for DUI and transported him to the Port Authority Police Station (police station) for processing.

Officer O'Malley testified that, after arriving at the police station, he read verbatim the DL-26 Form (form) chemical testing warning to Licensee.*fn2 Licensee repeated multiple times that he did not understand the form and, after reading the form to Licensee again, Officer O'Malley asked specifically what part of the form Licensee did not understand. Licensee did not specifically answer Officer O'Malley's question, but kept repeating "I don't understand." (Hr'g Tr. at 21, R.R. at 31a.) Licensee did not sign the form and refused to submit to a chemical test. The Department subsequently suspended Licensee's operating privileges for a period of twelve months with an effective date of March 10, 2008.*fn3

After considering the testimony and evidence presented at the hearing, the trial court held that Officers Hillgartner and O'Malley did not have jurisdiction to stop and arrest Licensee, thereby making the Officers' invocation of the Implied Consent Law invalid. The Department now appeals to this Court, raising only one issue.*fn4 The Department contends that the trial court erred as a matter of law because Officers Hillgartner and O'Malley had the statutory authority to conduct the traffic stop and, subsequently, arrest Licensee for DUI. We agree.

Section 3303(a) of the Railroad and Street Railway Police Act (Act), 22 Pa. C.S. § 3303(a), addresses the jurisdiction that Port Authority police officers have in exercising general police powers and provides as follows:

Railroad and street railway policeman shall severally possess and exercise all the powers of a police officer in the city of Philadelphia, in and upon, and in the immediate and adjacent vicinity of, the property of the corporate authority or elsewhere within this Commonwealth while engaged in the discharge of their duties in pursuit of railroad, street railway or transportation system business.

22 Pa. C.S. § 3303(a).*fn5 This section of the Act has been interpreted to provide Port Authority police with two different types of jurisdiction to exercise police powers:

(1) primary jurisdiction; and (2) extra-territorial jurisdiction. Commonwealth v. Firman, 571 Pa. 610, 616, 813 A.2d 643, 647 (2002). Primary jurisdiction is the "authority [of the Port Authority police] . . . constrained by the geographical area corresponding with its territorial limits" to exercise regular police powers "in and upon, and in the immediate and adjacent vicinity of the property or corporate authority." Firman, 571 Pa. at 616-17, 813 A.2d at 647. In contrast, a Port Authority police officer has extra-territorial jurisdiction to make stops and arrests if, while on-duty and engaged in official transportation business, he observes someone making a threat to Port Authority property, passengers, or personnel. Id. at 617-18, 813 A.2d at 647-48.

When determining whether Port Authority officers had the requisite primary jurisdiction necessary to exercise police power, courts look closely to the geographic relationship between the Port Authority property and the location where the violation occurred. In Commonwealth v. Bloom, 979 A.2d 368 (Pa. Super. 2009), the Superior Court held that a Port Authority police officer had primary jurisdiction to stop a defendant that committed a traffic violation. In Bloom, the defendant, while travelling on a state road, drove through a red light that was activated by a Port Authority-owned signaling system and located 500 feet from a Port Authority-owned and operated tunnel. A Port Authority officer patrolling the tunnel observed the defendant's violation, pulled him over on the state road approximately 75 feet from the traffic light and 150 feet from the tunnel, and subsequently arrested him for DUI. Bloom, 979 A.2d at 372. Because the traffic violation occurred within the immediate and adjacent vicinity of Port Authority property, the Superior Court concluded that the Port Authority officer had primary jurisdiction to stop and arrest the defendant. Id.

In contrast, in Commonwealth v. Quaid, 871 A.2d 246 (Pa. Super. 2005), the Superior Court held that a railroad officer did not have primary jurisdiction when he stopped the defendant for driving erratically on a state route because the testimony and evidence did not establish the requisite geographical proximity. Specifically, the officer in Quaid provided no testimony or evidence that the violation occurred "in the immediate and adjacent vicinity" of the railroad company's property to support the conclusion that the stop fell within the officer's primary jurisdiction. Quaid, 871 A.2d at 253. The officer testified only that the railroad was visible from the roadway. The officer did not provide any testimony as to the distance from the tracks to where the officer observed the defendant committing the violation, nor did the Commonwealth present any evidence regarding the presence of intervening obstacles or obstructions. The Superior Court held that mere observation of the railroad property from the ...

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