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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Michelle Necole Griffith

November 2, 2011

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLANT
v.
MICHELLE NECOLE GRIFFITH, APPELLEE



Appeal from Order of the Superior Court at No. 1315 MDA 2008 dated July 2, 2009, Reversing, Vacating, and Remanding the Judgment of Sentence of the Berks County Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division, at No. CP-06- CR-0003318-2006 dated June 25, 2008.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice McCAFFERY

[J-44-2011]

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, ORIE MELVIN, JJ.

ARGUED: May 10, 2011

OPINION

The issue presented in this case is whether expert testimony is required to convict a defendant of driving under the influence of a drug or combination of drugs, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3802(d)(2), when the drugs in question are prescription medications. Because the Superior Court erroneously concluded that expert testimony was required under this statutory provision, we reverse.

On May 31, 2006, Michelle Necole Griffith ("Appellee") was charged by criminal complaint with driving under the influence of a drug to a degree which impairs the ability to drive safely, pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S. § 3802(d)(2), following an incident that took place on May 5, 2006.*fn1 The criminal complaint was based on an eyewitness's account of the reckless and dangerous manner in which Appellee was driving;*fn2 on a police officer's observations of Appellee, including her failure to pass three field sobriety tests; and on the detection in Appellee's blood of Diazepam (Valium), at 95 nanograms per milliliter, and Nordiazepam, at 220 nanograms per milliliter, along with Appellee's acknowledgement that she had taken a different prescription medication, specifically, Soma 350, on the morning of the incident.*fn3 Police also found prescription pill bottles for Soma in the open center console of Appellee's vehicle.*fn4

A bench trial was held on March 7, 2007, at which only two individuals testified: the eyewitness who observed Appellee's reckless driving and then called 911, and Officer William H. Dillman, the experienced police officer who responded to the call. In addition, the parties stipulated that both Diazepam and Nordiazepam are Schedule IV controlled substances, and that the amounts found in Appellee's bloodstream were, respectively, just below or in the therapeutic range. The trial court convicted Appellee of violating subsection 3802(d)(2), and on June 25, 2008, sentenced her to serve not less than 90 days nor more than 5 years in prison, and to pay a fine of $1,500 as well as costs.*fn5

Appellee appealed to the Superior Court, asserting, inter alia, that the evidence was not sufficient to prove that she had violated subsection 3802(d)(2), because no expert testimony had been proffered to establish that the prescription medications detected in her blood were the cause of her impaired ability to drive safely. A divided panel of the Superior Court reversed Appellee's conviction. Although no member of the panel disputed the trial court's finding that Appellee was incapable of safely driving on the afternoon of the incident that led to her arrest, the majority held that the evidence was insufficient to sustain Appellee's conviction. Commonwealth v. Griffith, 985 A.2d 230, 235-36 (Pa.Super. 2009). Under the majority's reasoning, the laboratory tests revealed only the presence of prescription medications in Appellee's blood, and it was improper for the fact-finder to infer the effect of those prescription medications on the human body in the absence of expert testimony. Id. at 236. The majority contrasted the generally understood intoxicating effect of alcohol with the various effects of prescription medications: the effect of alcohol "is widely known and recognized by the average layperson, [but] the same cannot be said [concerning the effects] of prescription medications." Id. Accordingly, the panel majority set forth a rule requiring expert testimony as to the effects and interactions of prescription medications when such medications are the alleged intoxicants in a subsection 3802(d)(2) prosecution. Id.

Writing in dissent, Judge Maureen Lally-Green disagreed with the majority's pronouncement of a rule requiring expert testimony in subsection 3802(d)(2) prosecutions that involve prescription medications. In addition, Judge Lally-Green would have concluded that the evidence was sufficient to convict Appellee under subsection 3802(d)(2) given the circumstances of this case.

The Commonwealth filed a petition for allowance of appeal to this Court, which we granted as to the following issue:

Whether expert testimony is required to prove that the amount of a controlled substance found in a defendant's blood or urine caused the driving impairment under 75 Pa.C.S. § 3802(d)[(2)].

Commonwealth v. Griffith, 9 A.3d (Pa. 2010).

This issue sets forth a legal question, to wit, whether the evidence to establish a violation of subsection 3802(d)(2) can ever be sufficient in the absence of expert testimony as to causation. To resolve this question, we must interpret the relevant statutory provisions to ascertain the legislative intent. Because we are addressing a question of law, our standard of review is de novo and our scope is plenary. ...


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