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Gifford v. Commonwealth

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

October 24, 2017

Vincent Gifford
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, Appellant

          Submitted: August 25, 2017




         The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing (PennDOT) appeals an Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County (trial court) that sustained the statutory appeal of Vincent Gifford (Licensee) from a one-year suspension of his operating privilege imposed by PennDOT pursuant to Section 3733 of the Vehicle Code (Code), 75 Pa. C.S. § 3733.[1]Because the trial court did not err in holding that Licensee meets the extraordinary circumstances exception set forth in Gingrich v. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, 134 A.3d 528 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016), we affirm.

         The facts are straightforward and not in dispute. On June 6, 2013, Licensee violated Section 3733 of the Code, relating to fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer. On January 10, 2014, Licensee was convicted of this crime by the trial court. On August 8, 2016, the Delaware County Office of Judicial Support (OJS) notified PennDOT of Licensee's January 10, 2014 conviction. PennDOT mailed a Notice of Suspension, pursuant to Section 1532(b) of the Code, 75 Pa. C.S. § 1532(b), [2] to Licensee on August 16, 2016. The Notice of Suspension stated that Licensee's operating privilege was suspended for a period of one year effective on September 20, 2016. Licensee timely filed a License Suspension Appeal in the trial court on September 1, 2016.

         On November 15, 2016, the trial court held a de novo hearing on Licensee's appeal, at which PennDOT presented Licensee's Certified Driving Record, and Licensee was given an opportunity to testify. At this hearing, Licensee did not dispute the January 10, 2014 conviction but testified that he had reformed in the nearly two-year and seven-month period since the conviction. Since the June 6, 2013 violation, Licensee has not had any further violations or convictions. Licensee stated that he is currently employed at 3J's, a tire business located in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he delivers tires six days a week throughout Pennsylvania. Licensee explained that 90% of his workday involves driving and that he began his employment at 3J's in approximately early- to mid-2015. Licensee further testified that since being hired at 3J's, he has looked for supplemental work but has been unable to attain an additional job because of his felony conviction from January 10, 2014. Additionally, Licensee stated that no positions are available at his current job that would not require him to possess a driver's license. Licensee indicated that he is not confident that he could find another job if he lost his current job at 3J's.

         Licensee resides with his parents, his girlfriend, and his three-year-old daughter. Licensee pays rent and various bills and testified that, even though his girlfriend is employed, his family could not afford to live only on his girlfriend's income. Additionally, Licensee's daughter was born with a seizure condition requiring frequent, unplanned emergency trips to the hospital.[3] Further, Licensee testified that he is the only one who drops his daughter off at day care and that he may be the only one available to drive when she needs to go to the hospital because of her condition.

         On March 8, 2017, the trial court sustained the appeal and reinstated Licensee's operating privilege. The trial court reasoned that although the traditional rule is that delays attributable to non-PennDOT entities are insufficient to invalidate a license suspension, a limited exception to this rule was set forth in Gingrich that allows a trial court to consider delays attributable to non-PennDOT entities in certain circumstances. (Trial Ct. Op. at 4-5.) In its opinion, the trial court found that the circumstances of this case were analogous to the facts in Gingrich. (Id. at 6.) PennDOT contended that Gingrich was inapplicable because the delay at issue in this case is substantially less than the delay in Gingrich. The trial court rejected this argument by distinguishing the precedent relied upon by PennDOT and finding guidance in Section 6323(1)(i) of the Code, 75 Pa. C.S. § 6323(1)(i), [4] which directs OJS to report convictions to PennDOT "within ten days after final judgment of conviction." (Id. at 9.) The trial court further concluded that the suspension had lost its public protection rationale and is instead being instituted as an additional punitive measure. (Id. at 10.) PennDOT timely appeals.[5]

         On appeal, PennDOT argues that the trial court erred in sustaining Licensee's appeal and ordering the reinstatement of Licensee's operating privilege. PennDOT asserts that the trial court erred because, under the traditional rule, a license suspension generally may only be invalidated on the basis of delay when PennDOT is responsible for an unreasonable delay and a licensee would suffer prejudice as a result of having his or her operating privilege suspended. To the extent that Gingrich created an exception to this traditional rule, PennDOT argues that Gingrich does not apply to these circumstances. Specifically, PennDOT asserts that Gingrich is inapplicable because the two-year, seven-month delay here does not amount to an "extraordinarily extended period of time." (PennDOT Br. at 19.)

         Generally, for a licensee to challenge a license suspension based on delay, the licensee must prove that: "'(1) an unreasonable delay chargeable to PennDOT led the licensee to believe that [his] operating privileges would not be impaired; and (2) prejudice would result by having the operating privileges suspended after such delay.'" Dep't of Transp., Bureau of Driver Licensing v. Gombocz, 909 A.2d 798, 800-01 (Pa. 2006) (alteration in original) (quoting Terraciano v. Dep't of Transp., Bureau of Driver Licensing, 753 A.2d 233, 236 (Pa. 2000)). Historically, this Court has only considered the delay that is attributable to PennDOT in determining whether a suspension may be invalidated on the basis of delay. See, e.g., Dep't of Transp., Bureau of Driver Licensing v. Green, 546 A.2d 767, 769 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1988). In Green, we explained the rationale for the traditional rule:

If [PennDOT] too often failed to meet the responsibility thus focused upon it, the locus of fault would be clear and executive and legislative remedies could be directed at [PennDOT]. But a very different situation would prevail if the effectiveness of the Vehicle Code sanctions became dependent on scores of court clerks and hundreds of functionaries within the minor judiciary.

Id. However, recently, this Court recognized "limited extraordinary circumstances" where a licensee may rely on the delay attributable to entities other than PennDOT by showing that: (1) the "conviction is not reported for an extraordinarily extended period of time"; (2) "the licensee has a lack of further violations for a significant number of years before the report is finally sent"; and (3) the licensee is prejudiced by the delay. Gingrich, 134 A.3d at 534. The Court concluded that this narrow exception is applicable "where the suspension loses its public protection rationale and simply becomes an additional punitive measure resulting from the conviction, but imposed long after the fact." Id. at 534.

         PennDOT seeks the application of the traditional, non-Gingrich rule here. In the present case, there is no dispute that PennDOT acted promptly[6] once it received Licensee's notice of conviction from the OJS. Thus, even though the trial court found prejudice under the traditional rule, Licensee would not be entitled to relief. Therefore, in order to obtain the desired relief, Licensee must demonstrate that he meets the three factors of the Gingrich standard.

         No dispute exists as to whether the second and third factors of the Gingrich standard are met in this case. Licensee's Certified Driving Record reveals no additional violations since his January 10, 2014 conviction. Moreover, the trial court found that, based on Licensee's credited testimony, Licensee would be prejudiced by the delay because without his license, he runs the risk of losing his job and source of income to provide for his family, which would be difficult to replace because of his felony conviction, and also would be unable to provide transportation for his daughter's frequent and, at times, emergency, medical treatments. PennDOT does not challenge this finding of prejudice, and prior case law supports the notion that losing a job that requires a driver's license constitutes prejudice.[7] See Orloff v. Dep't of Transp., Bureau of Driver Licensing, 912 A.2d 918, 924 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006).

         In addition, Licensee is able to demonstrate further prejudice because of his familial obligations, particularly those requiring the use of his license to ensure his daughter is transported to her necessary and unplanned emergency medical treatments and, if required, to the hospital. For these reasons, the evidence in the record ...

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