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Dale Lamar Strawn v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

January 19, 2011


Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered on July 24, 2009 at No. 1723 C.D. 2008 affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County, Civil Division, dated July 11, 2008 at No. 08-03257-30-6 The opinion of the court was delivered by: Madame Justice Todd


ARGUED: May 11, 2010


In this appeal by allowance, we address the question of whether the imposition of multiple operating privilege suspensions under 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1532(b), for multiple violations of the Motor Vehicle Code,*fn1 are appropriate where the violations occurred during a single criminal episode. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the decision of the Commonwealth Court upholding multiple suspensions under these circumstances.

Appellant, Dale Lamar Strawn, was arrested on September 18, 2007 in Hilltown Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania following a police chase and was charged with various offenses under the Motor Vehicle Code. On February 1, 2008, Appellant pled guilty to: (1) driving under the influence; (2) failing to stop after an accident involving damage to attended vehicle or property; (3) reckless driving; and (4) fleeing a police officer.*fn2 By separate notices dated March 3, 2008, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing ("PennDOT") notified Appellant that his operating privileges had been suspended for an aggregate of three years, pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1532(b) (stating that PennDOT shall suspend a driver's operating privileges upon receiving notice of a driver's "conviction of . . . any [enumerated] offense"). Specifically, the notices informed Appellant that his operating privileges had been suspended as follows: (1) for his conviction of driving under the influence, a one-year suspension; (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 failing to stop at an accident, a six-month suspension.

Appellant did not challenge his one-year suspension for driving under the influence, but appealed his other suspensions to the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County. On appeal, Appellant argued that only one suspension was appropriate because all of his offenses arose from a single criminal episode, citing Freundt v. Commonwealth, Dep't of Transp., 584 Pa. 283, 883 A.2d 503 (2005), and Drabic v. Commonwealth, Dep't of Transp., 588 Pa. 670, 906 A.2d 1153 (2006).*fn3 The trial court rejected this argument, upholding all of Appellant's suspensions. Appellant appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which affirmed. Appellant petitioned this Court for review, which we granted, to decide whether multiple operating privilege suspensions under Section 1532(b) are appropriate where they arise from multiple violations of the Motor Vehicle Code committed during a single criminal episode.

By way of background, while the instant challenge under Section 1532(b) presents an issue of first impression for this Court, we have addressed multiple operating privilege suspensions under different subsections of Section 1532 in two prior decisions: Freundt and Drabic. In Freundt, we held that, for purposes of license suspensions issued pursuant to Section 1532(c)*fn4 relating to violations of the Controlled Substances Act,*fn5 only a single suspension is appropriate where multiple violations arise from a single criminal episode. Freundt, 584 Pa. at 291, 883 A.2d at 507. In that case, Freundt, while employed as a pharmacist, misappropriated drugs from her employer. Id. at 285, 883 A.2d at 504. She pled guilty to 16 counts of acquiring or obtaining a controlled substance by misappropriation, fraud, forgery, deception, or subterfuge. Id. PennDOT mailed 16 separate notices to Freundt informing her that her operating privileges had been suspended pursuant to Section 1532(c). Freundt challenged 15 of the suspensions on the ground that all the violations arose from the same criminal episode, for which, she contended, only a single suspension was appropriate. Id. at 286, 883 A.2d at 504. The trial court found that the violations constituted multiple criminal episodes, and therefore supported multiple suspensions. The Commonwealth Court reversed. Freundt v. Commonwealth, Dep't of Transp., 804 A.2d 706 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2002). Citing its own precedent, the Commonwealth Court concluded that only separate and distinct criminal episodes warranted separate suspensions. Id. at 706. As the record did not reflect whether Freundt misappropriated the drugs at one time or over a series of acquisitions, the court concluded that the trial court erred in upholding multiple suspensions. Id. PennDOT thereafter petitioned this Court for review.

In a 4-3 decision, we affirmed the Commonwealth Court. In a majority opinion authored by Chief Justice Cappy, we reasoned that Section 1532(c)'s language - that the department shall suspend the operating privileges of an individual upon that individual's "conviction of any offense" - "shows that the statute imposes a suspension not merely for each conviction for every violation of the Crimes Code, but for each conviction stemming from a criminal episode." Freundt, 584 Pa. at 290, 883 A.2d at 506. We reasoned that, if the legislature intended to impose a suspension for each conviction, the statute "would only contain the word 'conviction' throughout . . . . Instead, the statute is triggered by the entire phrase 'conviction of any offense.'" Id. at 290, 883 A.2d at 506-07. Additionally, we noted the lengths of the suspensions varied depending on whether the violation was a "first offense," "second offense," or "third or subsequent offense." Id. at 290, 883 A.2d at 507. We concluded it was "logical that a graduation of penalties would apply for those who have committed offenses on more than one occasion, necessitating a greater license suspension." Id. Accordingly, we held, "since a conviction of an offense is a conviction stemming from a criminal episode, an offense for the purpose of § 1532(c) is a single criminal episode." Id.

Justice Saylor dissented, maintaining that an offense is simply a violation of the law, and a single criminal episode could involve multiple offenses. Id. at 292, 883 A.2d at 508 (Saylor, J., dissenting). As such, Justice Saylor saw no reason to construe "offense" to mean "single criminal episode," and would have upheld the multiple suspensions. Id. Justice Eakin also penned a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Newman, wherein he contended that the majority effectively imposed on the Commonwealth the burden to prove the offenses arose out of multiple criminal episodes. Id. at 293, 883 A.2d at 508 (Eakin, J., dissenting). Justice Eakin opined that, rather, the burden should be on the party claiming the offenses arose from a single criminal episode. Id. Justice Eakin also agreed with Justice Saylor that the majority's reading of Section 1532(c) was strained, reasoning that, under Section 1532(c), the operative act mandating the suspension was the commission of an offense, while the notice of conviction merely triggered PennDOT's duty to impose the suspension. Id. at 293, 883 A.2d at 509. Therefore, Justice Eakin concluded multiple offenses should result in multiple suspensions, regardless of whether they arose from a single criminal episode. Justice Eakin viewed this result as consistent with Frontini v. Commonwealth, Dep't of Transp., 527 Pa. 448, 593 A.2d 410 (1991), where this Court held, under 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1542, a driver could not be classified as a habitual offender where three deaths resulted from one accident because Section 1542 specifically stated the convictions had to arise from separate acts. Freundt, 584 Pa. at 295, 883 A.2d at 510. Justice Eakin noted Section 1532(c) did not mandate that separate suspensions arise from separate acts, thereby allowing multiple suspensions for multiple violations arising from a single episode. Id.

One year later, our Court decided Drabic. In that case, Drabic was involved in an automobile accident resulting in the death of the passenger in his vehicle, and he pled guilty to 14 offenses, including homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence ("homicide by vehicle-DUI"). Drabic, 588 Pa. at 672, 906 A.2d at 1154. PennDOT issued 14 separate notices of suspension pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1532(a) and (a.1),*fn6 and Drabic appealed 12 of them. Id. at 673-74, 906 A.2d at 1155. He did not challenge the suspension imposed for his homicide by vehicle-DUI offense, but argued, because his other criminal offenses were lesser included offenses and merged with homicide by vehicle-DUI for sentencing, his operating privilege suspensions should likewise have merged. Id. The trial court agreed, in part, and merged his suspensions stemming from DUI and aggravated assault by vehicle-DUI into his suspension for homicide by vehicle-DUI, and also merged his reckless driving suspension with his homicide by vehicle suspension. Id. at 674, 906 A.2d at 1155. PennDOT appealed, and the Commonwealth Court affirmed in part and reversed in part.*fn7 Commonwealth, Dep't of Transp., Bureau of Driver Licensing v. Drabic, 738-739 CD 2005 (Pa. Cmwlth. September 9, 2005). The Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court's merger analysis, relying on Zimmerman v. Commonwealth, Dep't of Transp., 759 A.2d 953 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2000), wherein it held, because the sentences for the underlying criminal convictions merged, the collateral civil consequences likewise merged. Drabic, 738-739 CD 2005, at 5.

On appeal to this Court, we affirmed in another 4-3 decision, with the majority opinion authored by Justice Baldwin. We specifically accepted review in order to address "whether collateral civil consequences of criminal acts, in this instance suspensions of operating privileges . . . , should be merged to accord with the merger of the underlying criminal convictions from which the collateral civil consequences flow." Drabic, 588 Pa. at 672, 906 A.2d at 1154. Prior to addressing the merger doctrine, however, we opined on the implications of Freundt's single criminal episode analysis. We observed that Sections 1532(a) and (a.1) used "conviction for any offense" language similar to Section 1532(c) which was at issue in Freundt, and we saw no reason to depart from the analysis in Freundt. Drabic, 588 A.2d at 677, 906 A.2d at 1157. Thus, we concluded the single criminal episode analysis applied to Drabic's operating privilege suspensions.

We then went on to address the question on which we accepted review: whether merger applied in this civil context. We conceded that the doctrine of merger found its roots in the double jeopardy provisions of the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions, but noted that the Commonwealth Court had applied merger in the related context of calculating points on a license. Id. at 680, 906 A.2d at 1159 (citing Commonwealth, Dep't of Transp. v. Maddesi, 588 A.2d 580 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1991)). Based principally on our determination that "the Legislature articulated no proscription against collateral civil consequences merging along with the underlying criminal convictions," we upheld the Commonwealth Court's conclusion that the operating privilege suspensions merged. Id.

Justice Saylor dissented, arguing that Freundt was not controlling as it was decided in a different context, involving a separate subsection of Section 1532. Id. at 689, 906 A.2d at 1164 (Saylor, J., dissenting). Justice Saylor reasoned the legislature was more explicit in subsections (a) and (a.1) than in subsection (c), as (a) and (a.1) delineated specific violations to which a suspension was to attach. Id. at 690, 906 A.2d at 1164. Moreover, Justice Saylor noted subsections (a) and (a.1) stated that "any violation" of the listed offenses would result in a suspension. Id. Therefore, he concluded that Freundt did not control the outcome of Drabic, and that Drabic's suspensions should not have merged because he committed multiple violations of the offenses listed in Section 1532(a) and (a.1).

Justice Newman also authored a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Eakin, wherein she reasoned that the plain language of Sections 1532(a) and (a.1) indicated merger was not appropriate. Id. at 681, 906 A.2d at 1159 (Newman, J., dissenting). Justice Newman took issue with the majority's reasoning that applying the merger doctrine was permissible because Section 1532 contained no prohibition against it, arguing instead that the Court should read the legislature's silence regarding the merger doctrine as an indication it should not apply. Id. at 682, 906 A.2d at 1160. Regarding the majority's reliance on ...

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