The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Rollins, holding that a defendant must be sentenced to six months’ incarceration for a third conviction for driving on a DUI suspended license under 75 Pa.C.S. § 1543(b). The appellate courts had previously concluded that trial courts could not constitutionally sentence defendants to jail time for the first two convictions because the penalty sections of the statutes do not contain maximum possible sentences, making the statute unconstitutionally vague for the first two offenses. The third offense, however, is graded as a misdemeanor of the third degree, so a court may sentence a defendant to jail.
The Facts of Rollins
The defendant had his driver’s license suspended due to a DUI conviction. He was charged with driving on a DUI suspended license in violation of 75 Pa.C.S. § 1543(b) three times. He was convicted for the first two, but the case is not clear as to what sentence he received. In 2021, he was arrested and charged with the offense for a third time. He pleaded guilty, but he argued that he could not receive jail time because the statute was unconstitutionally vague. The trial court, however, sentenced him to six to twelve months’ incarceration. The statute provides:
(iii) A third or subsequent violation of this paragraph shall constitute a misdemeanor of the third degree and, upon conviction of this paragraph, a person shall be sentenced to pay a fine of $2,500 and to undergo imprisonment for not less than six months.
The statute itself does not specify the maximum penalty, so the defendant argued that he could not receive jail time. Two appellate cases arguably supported his position. Specifically, in Commonwealth v. Eid, the defendant was convicted of the summary offense of DWS set forth at 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1543(b)(1.1)(i), which applied when an individual was found to be driving with a suspended or revoked license and refused a breath test. Section 1543(b)(1.1)(i) provided that an individual found in violation of this section “shall, upon first conviction, be guilty of a summary offense and shall be sentenced to pay a fine of $1,000 and to undergo imprisonment for a period of not less than 90 days.” Eid was sentenced to a term of ninety days to six months’ imprisonment as well as a $1,000 fine.
On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the statute was “unconstitutionally vague and inoperable” as the provision failed to provide a maximum term of incarceration. The Supreme Court affirmed Eid’s conviction and fine, but it vacated the imprisonment term as it declined to infer a maximum sentence, which would have forced the Court to “engage in sheer speculation as to which sentence the General Assembly intended.”
Shortly thereafter, in Commonwealth v. Jackson, the defendant pleaded guilty to the summary offense of DWS set forth at 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1543(b)(1)(ii), which applied when an individual was found to have a second DWS violation. Section 1543(b)(1)(ii) provided “[a] second violation of this [crime] shall constitute a summary offense and, upon conviction [ ], a person shall be sentenced to pay a fine of $1,000[.00] and to undergo imprisonment for not less than 90 days.”
The Superior Court applied Eid and found that the section was unconstitutionally vague and inoperable because it contained identical language to that in Eid. The statute provided a mandatory minimum, but it provided no maximum, and the court could not guess as to what maximum the legislature intended. Therefore, the Jackson Court affirmed Jackson’s conviction and the imposition of the fine, but it vacated the house arrest portion of the sentence.
The Superior Court’s Decision
Here, the Superior Court affirmed the judgment of sentence and rejected the defendant’s argument. The Court found that the statute properly provides both a minimum and a maximum. It states that the minimum sentence shall be six months’ incarceration, and it also defines the statute as a third degree misdemeanor. The crime code provides that third degree misdemeanors may be punished by up to a year in jail, and so the absence of the specific maximum in the statute itself does not make the statute unconstitutionally vague because the offense is defined as a third degree misdemeanor. Therefore, the Court found that the section was not like the flawed sections in Eid and Jackson that apply to first and second offenses. Barring any successful additional appeals, the defendant will have to serve the six to twelve month jail sentence.
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