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Delayed Driver’s License Suspensions

When someone is convicted of a DUI in Pennsylvania, either at trial or through a plea, their Pennsylvania driving privilege is suspended for a set period of time. Judges have no discretion in this suspension. Neither does PennDOT, the agency that actually imposes the suspension.

What is supposed to happen is that a judge imposes a sentence and the Clerk of Court prepares a form, identified as DL-21, that is sent to PennDOT informing the agency of the conviction. PennDOT then imposes the required suspension.

That is how it is supposed to work. Like all machines built by humans, Something Went Wrong.

The Clerk of Courts is the official charged with maintaining the records of all criminal proceedings in a county. In York County, that job has been held by Don O’Shell for some time. He is, by most accounts, a decent guy. He did not, unfortunately, run a very tight office for most of the last decade. Consequently, from at least 2004 through 2009, those DL-21 forms did not get filled out and sent off to PennDOT. Until 2014. When O’Shell sent in at least 5,000 of them.

PennDOT, being the dutiful bureaucracy it is, imposed the appropriate license suspensions.

Hilarity ensued. People sued. The Commonwealth Court rejected a class-action style suit. Eventually, a case made it through the usual channels. PennDOT argued they did nothing wrong, and that a screwup at the Clerk of Courts does not prevent the agency imposing a suspension a decade after the fact.

The trial court agreed. In spite of everyone who has children or pets knowing you cannot delay punishment that long and expect it to have any rehabilitative effect, this wasn’t PennDOT’s screwup, and therefore the suspensions stood.

Today, the Commonwealth Court reversed that decision in at least one case: Gingrich v. Comm. of PA, 78 C.D. 2015 (PDF). This will likely guide the courts going forward.

Up until now, a driver had to show prejudice and delay on the part of PennDOT. Other causes of delay, including what happened in York (and Erie, but that’s a story for another day), would merit no relief. The new rule, announced in Gingrich, is that a driver can obtain relief if the conviction is not reported for an “extraordinary” length of time. The Commonwealth Court also held that the driver must show a lack of additional violations for a “significant” number of years, and actual prejudice. As courts are wont to do, the terms “extraordinary” and “significant” remain undefined. Presumably, a similar 10-year delay would qualify.

In summary, there was an easy fix for this. Equity and Justice demanded one thing. Your Government decided to take another route.

It remains to be seen if PennDOT will appeal this to the PA Supreme Court. I’m not holding my breath on them letting this go.

Which is all by way of saying you don’t have to be an asshole to work for PennDOT, but they seem to enjoy it.

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