On July 9, 2012, amendments to the DUI law in Pennsylvania became effective that increased the sentences for people convicted of DUI and had a passenger in the vehicle under the age of 18. Under the revised section 3803 of the Vehicle Code, the grading of a DUI charge in which a juvenile was a passenger is a misdemeanor of the first degree, which is the most severe misdemeanor charge and is punishable by up to 5 years incarceration and a $10,000.00 fine. Without the amendment, most first and second offense DUIs are ungraded misdemeanors and punishable by a sentence of up to 6 months of incarceration and a $5,000.00 fine. The amendment to the DUI law increases the mandatory minimum fine and imposes a hefty community service requirement for first offenses, and the amendment imposes mandatory minimum fines and periods of incarceration for second and subsequent offenses. The amendment did not change the DUI law discussing ARD eligibility. ARD is a first time offender program that may allow a person to avoid a conviction and have the DUI charges dismissed and expunged upon completion of the program. A person is not eligible for ARD is a passenger in the vehicle is under 14 years old.
Impact of Change to Grading of DUI Charge
Right to a Jury Trial for First Offenses and Second Offenses
Almost everyone is aware that both the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions provide citizens with a right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. What most people do not realize is that courts have interpreted the constitutions to provide the right to a jury trial only if the criminal charge carries a possible sentence of more than 6 months incarceration. Given the 6 month cutoff, most first and second offenses of DUI in Pennsylvania are only eligible for a trial before a judge and not a jury. Generally speaking, a criminal defense lawyer would much rather present a case to a jury rather than a judge. Now, if the district attorney elects to seek the sentencing enhancement for a DUI case in which a passenger was a minor, the district attorney is now giving the defense something that they may want, the right to a trial by jury. Jury trials take more time and add additional expense to the prosecution of a case. With a jury trial, a jury panel must be selected through a process called voir dire. The jury selection process is additional time and additional work for the district attorney. Also, at a jury trial for the DUI charge, the judge must spend time reading relatively lengthy instructions to the jurors, and both the criminal defense lawyer and the district attorney spend time prior to trial preparing proposed jury instructions for submission to the trial judge. In deciding whether to seek the enhanced penalties, the district attorney will need to consider the fact that the decision now gives the DUI defendant the right to a jury trial, and trials tax the time and economic resources of the district attorney’s office.
Additional Evidence Required to Obtain DUI Sentencing Enhancement
The amendment to the DUI law increases the grading of the DUI charge based upon the fact that a juvenile was in the vehicle. Under Federal case law, a fact or element that increases the maximum sentence permitted by law must be presented to the trier of fact and proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Because the juvenile passenger enhancement increases the maximum sentence, then the district attorney must present evidence at trial and convince a jury that the fact was proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order to obtain the enhancement. Some sentencing enhancements are decided by a judge at the time of sentencing, but such enhancements generally only increase the minimum and not the maximum sentence. While a district attorney should be able to present evidence regarding the age of the passenger relatively easily, it is a little more work for the district attorney.
Will the District Attorney Utilize the Enhancement?
The sentencing enhancement for DUI offenders that have a passenger less than 18 years of age in the vehicle is a good public relations move as the legislature can tell people that they are punishing people more severely for endangering a juvenile. However, a more important question is whether or not district attorneys will actually use the enhancement. In the next blog, I will review the factors that the district attorney will consider in determining whether or not to seek the enhancement for appropriate DUI charges.
Attorney Jason S. Dunkle has been a criminal defense lawyer in State College since 2004. His law office, JD Law, P.C., is located in downtown State College, within walking distance of the University Park Campus of Penn State University. If you or someone you know has been charged with a DUI or other criminal offenese, contact JD Law at (814) 954-1094 and schedule a FREE CONSULTATION.