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COURT TO PENNDOT: IMPOSING LICENSE SUSPENSION AFTER UNREASONABLE DELAY WHERE DRIVER HAS REFORMED IS JUST PLAIN MEAN

The PA Commonwealth Court has recently decided the case of Gifford v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, No. 386 C.D. 2017 (October 24, 2017), holding that the trial did not commit error when it sustained Gifford’s license appeal after concluding that a nearly two-year, seven-month delay attributable, not to PennDOT, but to the County Office of Judicial Support (“OJS”), was an “extraordinarily extended period of time.”

 On June 6, 2013, Gifford violated Section 3733 of the Code, relating to fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer. On January 10, 2014, Gifford was convicted of this crime by the trial court. And, 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 on August 16, 2016, advising Gifford of a one-year license suspension. Gifford filed a timely appeal from that notice.
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. Here, the delay was not PennDOT’s; rather it was due to the OJS.

At the appeal hearing before the trial court, Gifford testified that he had reformed in the nearly two-year and seven-month period since the conviction and, that since the June 6, 2013 violation, he had no further  violations or convictions. He also set forth a number of reasons why a suspension imposed at this time would prejudice him and his family.

The trial court first noted that the OJS is required to report convictions to PennDOT “within ten days after final judgment of conviction.” What’s more, the trial court concluded that the imposition of the suspension at this time no longer served a public protection rationale and was, instead, being instituted as an additional punitive measure.

The Commonwealth Court, in the matter of Gingrich v. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, 134 A.3d 528 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016) 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. The Gingrich 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.

Accordingly, although acknowledging that the general rule remains that only delays attributable to PennDOT may be grounds for vacating a license suspension based on delay, the Commonwealth Court in Gifford’s case affirmed the trial court’s determination that two years and seven months can be an “extraordinarily extended period of time” when considered with the other Gingrich factors, i.e. – the prejudice shown by the licensee and the absence or presence of subsequent violations.

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