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Yencha v. Commonwealth, Department of Transportation

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

May 31, 2018

Michael J. Yencha
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, Appellant

          Submitted: April 6, 2018




         The Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing (DOT) appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County (trial court), which sustained the appeal of Michael J. Yencha (Yencha) and reversed DOT's one-year suspension of his driver's license. DOT imposed the suspension because Yencha refused to submit to a chemical test following his arrest for driving under the influence pursuant to Section 1547 of the Vehicle Code, 75 Pa. C.S. § 1547, commonly referred to as the Implied Consent Law.[1] The trial court reversed Yencha's suspension concluding that DOT did not present sufficient evidence to meet its burden of proving the arresting officer had reasonable grounds to believe Yencha had been driving while under the influence of alcohol. We reverse.

         At the trial court hearing on this matter, DOT presented the testimony of Officer Justin M. Scalzo (Officer Scalzo) of the Greensburg Police Department. While Yencha attended the hearing and was represented by counsel, he did not testify and no other witnesses were presented by Yencha or DOT. Transcript of Proceedings (T.), 9/22/17, at 5-6.

         Officer Scalzo testified that on January 18, 2017, while on duty, he received a call to respond to a hit-and-run accident at the intersection of Arch Avenue and East Otterman Street. Id. at 6. Officer Scalzo arrived at the scene and spoke with the victim, Constance Clingerman (Clingerman). Id. Clingerman told Officer Scalzo that she was traveling northbound on Arch Avenue, and she stopped at a red light at the intersection of Arch Avenue and East Otterman Street. Id. While stopped, Clingerman noticed "a dark colored SUV-type vehicle travelling at a higher rate of speed" that caught her attention and subsequently struck her vehicle. Id.

         Clingerman told Officer Scalzo that she exited her vehicle to speak with the driver to obtain insurance information and to report the accident to the police. Id. Clingerman reported that the driver who struck her vehicle got back into his vehicle and fled the scene. Id. at 7. Clingerman stated that once the vehicle left the scene, it travelled northbound on Arch Avenue. Id. at 8. Officer Scalzo examined Clingerman's vehicle and saw damage to the rear bumper. Id. at 7. Although Clingerman did not obtain any driver information, she described the driver as a "white male with brownish colored hair." Id.

         As Officer Scalzo was interviewing Clingerman, another witness to the accident, Shane McBride (McBride), approached him and provided additional information regarding the accident. Id. at 7. McBride told Officer Scalzo that he was travelling southbound on Arch Avenue and saw a dark colored SUV travelling on Arch strike Clingerman's vehicle. Id. McBride provided Officer Scalzo with the license plate number of the vehicle that hit Clingerman's vehicle, "Echo, Bravo, November 1561, " i.e., EBN 1561. Id. at 7-8. With this information, Officer Scalzo had dispatch perform a registration check on the vehicle. Id. at 7. Based on the registration check, Officer Scalzo determined that the registered owner was Yencha and that he resided on Underwood Avenue. Id. at 7-8.

         Officer Scalzo asked other on-duty police officers to check Underwood Avenue and the surrounding area for the vehicle. Id. at 8. A short time later, other officers notified Officer Scalzo that they located Yencha's vehicle, which was parked in front of his house on Underwood Avenue. Id. About 15 minutes later, Officer Scalzo arrived at Yencha's residence to speak with him. Id. When he arrived at the residence, Officer Scalzo noticed a "darker greenish colored Jeep" parked in front of the residence. Id. The front end of the Jeep had sustained some damage. Id. Officer Scalzo "verified the registration, Echo, Bravo, November 1561, as the same registration [McBride] gave [him] on the scene." Id. The vehicle belonged to Yencha. Id. By this time, three other officers had already arrived at Yencha's residence and started speaking to Yencha on his front porch. Id. at 9.

         Officer Scalzo explained to Yencha that he was there to investigate the accident that occurred on Arch Avenue. Yencha denied knowing about any accident. Id. Officer Scalzo explained to Yencha that the damage on the front of his vehicle was consistent with the damage on the struck vehicle. Id. at 9-10. Yencha responded that his vehicle had been damaged in an earlier accident at the Hill Top Club. Id. at 10. During his conversation with Yencha, Officer Scalzo "detected a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from his person, and I also noticed, you know, glassy eyes, slightly slurred speech, all indicative of somebody under the influence of an alcoholic beverage." Id. at 9. Officer Scalzo testified that he believed that Yencha was under the influence of alcohol based on his "overall appearance, " including the odor of alcohol and Yencha's slurred speech and bloodshot eyes, which, Officer Scalzo explained, as a result of his training and experience, would cause him to conduct standard field sobriety tests in normal suspected driving under the influence situations. Id. at 10. Officer Scalzo requested Yencha submit to field sobriety tests, but Yencha refused. Id. Officer Scalzo placed Yencha under arrest for "suspicion of driving - [driving under the influence] DUI and being involved in the hit-and-run accident." Id. at 11.

         Once at the police station, Officer Scalzo asked Yencha to submit to a breath test. Id. Initially, Yencha agreed to take the test, but later refused. Id. at 11-12. Officer Scalzo read the DL-26 form, which provided the chemical testing refusal warnings, to Yencha verbatim. Id. at 13. Officer Scalzo asked Yencha to sign the form to acknowledge that he fully understood what the Officer read to him; Yencha refused to sign the form. Id.

         On cross-examination, Officer Scalzo admitted that he did not see Yencha drive a vehicle and that none of the witnesses identified Yencha as the driver of the vehicle. Id. at 15, 24 & 29. Officer Scalzo admitted that Clingerman never mentioned the driver having "any indication of alcohol." Id. at 19-20, 29. Officer Scalzo explained that, "[f]rom my understanding, it wasn't a real long encounter. It was just a brief encounter when [Clingerman] exited her vehicle to ask for insurance." Id. at 19.

         Once he arrived at Yencha's residence, Officer Scalzo stated that he checked the registration and observed damage to the front of the Jeep that would be consistent with the damage done to Clingerman's vehicle. Id. at 22. Although Officer Scalzo did not notice any paint transfer, he observed "dents to the rear of her van and dents to the front of [Yencha's] vehicle, which would show a rear end collision." Id. Officer Scalzo did not take the Jeep back to compare it to Clingerman's vehicle to see if the damage coordinated because he allowed Clingerman to leave after he finished interviewing her, as there were no reported injuries at the scene, which is normal in a "hit-and-run or a rear[-]end collision vehicle accident." Id. at 20, 23-24.

         Officer Scalzo testified that approximately 25 minutes lapsed from when he arrived on the accident scene until he spoke with Yencha on his porch and observed his state of intoxication.[2] Id. at 24, 29-30. Officer Scalzo stated that he did not know whether Yencha consumed any alcohol at his house. Id. at 25-26.

         On re-direct examination, Officer Scalzo explained why he thought Yencha was the driver of the vehicle involved in the hit-and-run accident:

Well, a couple of things, I guess, based off of, and again, it was a vague description, but a white male with brownish colored hair that fit Mr. Yencha when I spoke with him, accompanied with the fact that there was a plate, a registration plate, registered to Mr. Yencha. He was the sole person at his residence at the time, and then putting [the] time frame together, as I have noted in my report, when he had stated to me what time he arrived home, put me in ...

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