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Rawson v. Commonwealth, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

August 29, 2014

Todd M. Rawson, Appellant
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing

Submitted July 11, 2014.

Page 144

Appealed from No. 2013-07482. State Agency Common Pleas Court of the County of Chester. Judge Tunnell, J.

Joseph P. Green, Jr., West Chester, for appellant.

Terrance M. Edwards, Assistant Counsel, Harrisburg, for appellee.




Page 145

Todd M. Rawson (Rawson) appeals the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County's (trial court) order that denied his statutory appeal from a six-month suspension of his operating privilege pursuant to Section 1532(c) of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa. C.S. § 1532(c) (regarding mandatory suspension). The Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing (Department) imposed the suspension as a result of its receipt of a conviction report that inaccurately stated Rawson was convicted of possession of a controlled substance (marijuana) under Section 13(a)(16) of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act (Drug Act).[1] In fact, Rawson was convicted of criminal attempt, an inchoate offense under Section 901 of the Crimes Code, 18 Pa. C.S. § 901, with possession as the underlying object offense.

Rawson contends the trial court erred in accepting an inaccurate conviction report as evidence of his conviction when the trial judge who presided over his criminal case (criminal court) declared it a legal nullity. Rawson also argues that suspension is not warranted for the inchoate offense of attempt as a matter of law because it is not listed among the offenses mandating suspension. Upon review, we affirm.

I. Background

Pursuant to a plea agreement, Rawson pled guilty and was sentenced by the criminal court for criminal attempt to possess a controlled substance. The clerk of courts sent the Department a DL-21D form for reporting drug-related convictions that trigger suspensions. However, the clerk's office erroneously checked a box for a violation of the Drug Act, but Rawson was convicted for attempt under Section 901 of the Crimes Code, 18 Pa. C.S. § 901. Notably, the inchoate offense of attempt did not appear on the form.

Upon receiving the inaccurate report showing conviction under Section 13(a)(16) of the Drug Act, the Department sent Rawson a notice of suspension of his operating privilege. Because he was not convicted of violating the statute cited in the notice, Rawson appealed the suspension to the trial court.

Page 146

The trial court held a hearing. Among other things, the court received a certified copy of the Official Notice of Suspension and Rawson's driving record (Exhibit C-1), the DL-21D form that triggered the Notice (Exhibit D-3), and a certified copy of the sentencing sheet (Exhibit C-2). Rawson submitted the testimony of Jordan Ludwick, First Deputy Clerk of Courts (Clerk of Courts) for Chester County. The parties stipulated to the following facts regarding Rawson's offense.

Rawson's friend in California mailed a package containing marijuana addressed to Rawson at his residence in Pennsylvania, via Federal Express. Instead of delivering the package, Federal Express security administratively opened the package, discovering four vacuum-sealed bags of marijuana. Ultimately, Rawson admitted to authorities that he had the marijuana shipped to him.

Despite its inaccuracy, the Department offered as evidence the DL-21D form, Report of a Conviction under the Drug Act (Conviction Report). Rawson objected because the form was factually incorrect, as he was only convicted of attempt. The trial court admitted the exhibit over objection.

To rebut the Conviction Report, Rawson submitted an order of the criminal court striking the Conviction Report. Significantly, the criminal court struck the Conviction Report " because it does not accurately reflect the actual events occurring in this case," erroneously stating a conviction of possession under the Drug Act. Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 10a. The criminal court declared the report a legal nullity and directed its expungement from Department records. The criminal court directed service of the order on the Department and requested the Department return the " improper DL-21[D]." Id.

The Clerk of Courts, who is a licensed attorney, testified regarding the sequence of events leading to the notice of suspension and the court's practices for reporting violations to the Department generally. Importantly, he testified that the Conviction Report was not accurate. The Clerk of Courts explained the genesis of the inaccurate Conviction Report as follows.

As background, the Clerk of Courts explained that the Department automated its DL (driver's licensing) functions as of April 1, 2013. The DL forms are automatically generated by CPCMS, the statewide criminal docket system for the courts of common pleas. He explained the DL form that is automatically generated is not the same document that is in the clerk's case file. The file copy is originally submitted electronically, and is not seen by the clerks.

The DL-21D form includes a number of boxes that are to be checked for certain violations of the Drug Act. The Clerk of Courts has a legal obligation to submit a DL-21D form to the Department when there is a conviction for a " checked-box" offense. 75 Pa. C.S. § 6323. In this case, someone in the clerk's office incorrectly completed the form by checking a box for a violation of 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(16) (relating to possession). The Clerk of Courts testified the form misrepresents the crime because it states a conviction for possession as opposed to attempt. The clerk's office could not send a corrected version of the Conviction Report to the Department as the form contains no reference to the crime of attempt. Prior to automation, however, the clerk's office would clarify, by hand-written note, that the actual offense was attempt.

At the hearing, Rawson argued the Department did not have a certified record of his conviction of an offense " involving the possession, sale or delivery" of a controlled

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substance requiring license suspension under Section 1532(c) of the Vehicle Code. Without the Conviction Report, the Department did not have any certified record of conviction for a Drug Act offense. Instead, the Department had a copy of Rawson's sentencing sheet, certified and signed by the Clerk of Courts.

The Department argued a conviction for attempt of an offense involving a controlled substance sufficed to trigger suspension. The trial court agreed.

The trial court issued a decision and order reinstating Rawson's suspension. The trial court reasoned the offense of attempt to possess qualified as an offense " involving the possession" of a controlled substance, thus meeting the nexus requirement to qualify for mandatory suspension. The trial court noted the Department submitted a certified record of Rawson's conviction for attempt to possess a controlled substance. See Tr. Ct., Slip Op., 1/30/14, at 3. Rawson did not object to the admission of the certified record of his sentencing sheet showing his conviction for attempt. Accordingly, the Department met its burden to prove a conviction involving possession of a controlled substance.

Rawson appealed.[2]

II. Discussion

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