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PA Superior Court: DUI Defendant May Call Expert Witness to Attack Validity of Field Sobriety Tests

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Taylor. In Taylor, the Superior Court reversed the defendant’s conviction for DUI because the trial court improperly prohibited the defendant’s expert witness from testifying that field sobriety tests have not been scientifically validated for use in detecting impairment due to drugs. This is an important decision for defendants who are facing DUI charges and who may not have submitted to a blood test because it may allow the defendant to use expert testimony to attack the validity of field sobriety tests. 

Commonwealth v. Taylor

The defendant was driving her car in York County, Pennsylvania with her 18-month-old child secured in the back seat.. She was driving twenty miles above the speed limit, and  when a traffic light in front of her turned red, the defendant abruptly braked and nearly rear-ended a stopped vehicle in front of her. A few seconds after the light turned green, the defendant rapidly accelerated her car over a nearby curb and crashed into a utility pole located about 100 feet from the road.

A motorist who saw the accident pulled over next to the defendant’s car and offered to help her. The defendant got out of her car and told the motorist that she was not injured. Thankfully, her child was also unharmed. While speaking with the motorist, the defendant attempted to shut her car door, but the motorist stopped it from shutting because it could have hit the child’s outstretched arm.

A local police officer arrived at the scene of the accident a few minutes later. He observed the defendant having blood shot eyes and slurred speech, but he did not smell alcohol on her. Per the officer, the defendant also appeared to be confused and very tired. The officer then had the defendant perform two standard field sobriety tests. He had her walk in a straight line and and then do a test involving walking and turning 180 degrees. According to the officer, the defendant performed poorly on the tests. She allegedly had trouble  balancing herself and following directions. The defendant’s body swayed during the tests, and she used her arms to keep steady. She also started the tests before being told to do so.

The officer arrested the defendant on suspicion of DUI and Endangering the Welfare of a Child (“EWOC”). While in custody, she admitted to taking Adderall and Xanax, but she could not provide the amounts taken or how long before the accident she had taken the medications. She denied having any injuries or medical conditions that could have affected her ability to operate a motor vehicle. At trial, the Commonwealth did not allege that the defendant was impaired by alcohol. Further, the Commonwealth did not introduce the results of any blood testing into evidence. Instead, the Commonwealth relied primarily on the arresting officer’s testimony regarding the defendant’s car accident and how she performed on the field sobriety tests. The officer testified at length regarding his expertise in administering those tests. Other than describing the scene of the accident, almost all of the officer’s testimony was focused on how poorly the defendant performed on the tests. He further testified that the defendant’s performance indicated impairment due to drug use.

The defense attributed the defendant’s performance to a possible head injury from the accident. Additionally, the defendant attempted to rebut the officer’s testimony with the opinion of its own expert witness, a medical toxicologist and physician. The doctor planned to testify that there was no scientific basis to rely on field sobriety tests to detect drug impairment because they have only been validated to reveal intoxication from alcohol. The trial court qualified the doctor as an expert in toxicology and on the scientific basis for field sobriety tests.

The doctor testified that he reviewed the defendant’s medical history and confirmed that she had been prescribed Xanax and Adderall. He also testified that after using the medication for 30 days, the medications should have little to no side effects. The defendant had been prescribed the medication for over 30 days prior to the accident, but there was no evidence regarding what dosages she took. However, when the doctor attempted to testify about field sobriety tests, the Commonwealth objected and the court sustained the objection. As such, the doctor could not testify about the utility of field sobriety’s tests in detecting drug impairment. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of DUI and EWOC. The defendant then filed post-sentence motions which were denied. The defendant then filed a timely appeal.

What is Expert Testimony?

Rule 702 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence governs expert testimony. Expert testimony is not relevant in every case. In other words, you cannot call an expert to claim that a witness is lying. It is only admissible when an expert has an opinion on a subject which requires knowledge, information, or skill beyond what is possessed by the ordinary juror. In criminal cases, expert witnesses are most often used in cases that involve some form of medicine or science. They are common in DUI cases and many motor vehicle cases.

In determining whether to qualify someone as an expert, courts are supposed to employ a liberal standard when determining if a witness qualifies as an expert in a particular field of study. The witness does not need to possess all of the knowledge in a given field, but the witness must possess more knowledge than is otherwise within the ordinary range of training, knowledge, intelligence or experience. Further, a witness does not need formal education to qualify as an expert, although it certainly helps. This case focused on whether a witness can testify as an expert witness without having practical, hands-on experience in the field. In this case, the trial court prohibited the doctor from testifying that the tests had not been validated for detecting drug usage because the doctor was not a police officer and had never performed the tests on someone himself.

The Superior Court’s Decision

The Superior Court held that it was reversible error for the trial court to preclude the doctor’s testimony concerning field sobriety tests. As a preliminary matter, the Superior Court held that the doctor was qualified as an expert in this particular field and that the Commonwealth did not dispute any of these qualifications. Additionally, the Superior Court found that the  testimony would have gone to the heart of the issues in the defendant’s trial.

The Commonwealth was trying to prove that the defendant was impaired due to drug use, and prosecutors did not have any blood test results. They sought to prove intoxication by using the testimony of the officer and his observations of the defendant. They specifically sought to base a potential conviction on his observations of the defendant when she performed the field sobriety tests. If the doctor’s  testimony had been admitted, it could have rebutted the officer’s conclusion that the defendant was impaired by drugs. As a result of the judge’s preclusion of  the doctor’s testimony, the officer’s opinion on the defendant’s drug impairment went unchallenged. Therefore, this error in excluding the expert testimony resulted in significant prejudice to the defendant, and she will receive a new trial.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or are under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have won cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, DUI, Aggravated Assault, Rape, Possession with the Intent to Deliver, and Homicide. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.

PA Supreme Court: Philly Prosecutors Can't Try You Separately For DUI and Related Traffic Violations

Philadelphia DUI Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia DUI Defense Attorney Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Perfetto, holding that Philadelphia prosecutors may not file more serious misdemeanor or felony charges against a defendant who has already been tried in traffic court for summary offenses arising from the same incident. This means that if you were arrested by the police, charged with DUI, and also received traffic tickets like a ticket for reckless driving and the traffic case has been resolved, you cannot be prosecuted for the DUI. This happens frequently in Philadelphia because traffic court cases go to trial much more quickly than criminal trials. Although this may seem like a loophole to some, it is actually a question of fundamental fairness as prosecutors simply should not be allowed to charge a defendant in multiple different courts for the same conduct. Doing so requires the defendant to take off multiple days from work, pay more in attorney’s fees, and potentially receive separate sentences for the same incident. This is an extremely significant decision because it could result in the dismissal of numerous cases.

The facts of Commonwealth v. Perfetto

On July 3, 2014, the defendant was operating a motor vehicle in Philadelphia. The police stopped him and issued him a citation because he was driving without his lights on as required by 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 4302. The officer then determined that the defendant was also driving under the influence of a controlled substance. In addition to issuing the traffic tickets, they subsequently arrested him and charged him with DUI. In Philadelphia, when someone is issued a traffic citation and charged with a more serious criminal offense at the same time, the cases are not usually joined together. Instead, defendants have traditionally had to resolve the traffic citations in traffic court and the criminal case in the Philadelphia Municipal Court.

Prior to the resolution of the criminal charges, the defendant was found guilty, in absentia, on the summary traffic offense in the traffic court. The traffic court is a division of the Philadelphia Municipal Court. After his conviction, the defendant had a preliminary hearing for his DUI charges and he was held for court on all charges. In Philadelphia, if a defendant is charged with a felony, he will have a preliminary hearing in Municipal Court. If the court determines there is enough evidence for a case to go to trial, then the defendant will be held for court, and the case will be transferred to the Court of Common Pleas.

Motion to Dismiss Under Rule 110

At his trial, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the DUI charge against him because he had already been found guilty of the traffic offense. His defense attorney argued that 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 110 ( “Rule 110”) prohibits subsequent prosecutions that arise from the same criminal episode when the defendant has previously been convicted in the same court. Thus, he argued that because the defendant was found guilty in Municipal Court - Traffic Division for his traffic offense, and his traffic offense was part of the same incident as his alleged DUI, the Municipal Court - Criminal Division should dismiss the DUI case.

The trial court heard oral arguments on the defendant’s motion. The Commonwealth argued that Rule 110 should not apply because summary traffic offenses must be tried in the traffic division of the Philadelphia Municipal Court. Further, because the traffic division lacked the jurisdiction to hear the DUI charge, the two charges could not be tried at the same time. In other words, the Commonwealth argued that for all intents and purposes, the traffic division is a separate court and thus Rule 110 did not apply to the defendant’s case and his motion should be denied. At the conclusion of the arguments, the trial court agreed with the defendant and dismissed the DUI charges against him.

The Commonwealth’s Appeal to the Superior Court

The Commonwealth filed a notice of appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. On appeal, a divided en banc panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the trial court’s decision. The Superior Court engaged in a complex and convoluted jurisdictional analysis of Philadelphia’s Municipal Court and held that defendants who are charged with a traffic offense in Philadelphia must have the traffic offenses tried in the traffic division of the Municipal Court, regardless of whether the defendant is also charged with non-traffic offenses. Thus, according to the Superior Court, Rule 110 did not apply when a defendant was previously convicted or acquitted of a traffic offense. The defendant filed a petition for allowance of appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted the appeal.

What is Rule 110?

 Rule 110 is the codified version of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Campana. The Campana Court held that the Double Jeopardy clause requires the Commonwealth to bring all known charges arising from a single criminal episode against a defendant in one proceeding. The Pennsylvania legislature wrote this into law in Rule 110.

How do you win a Rule 110 motion?

In order to win a Rule 110 motion and obtain the dismissal of charges based on the existence of a prior prosecution, the defendant must be able to show four things. The defense must show:

First, the former prosecution resulted in an acquittal or a conviction.

Second, the current prosecution was based on the same criminal conduct or arose from the same criminal episode as the former prosecution.

Third, the prosecution was aware of all the charges when the former prosecution commenced.

Finally, all of the charges were within the same jurisdictional district.

If all of these requirements are met then the Commonwealth is prohibited from prosecuting the defendant.

The Commonwealth Cannot Prosecute You Twice If You’ve Already Been Convicted of Summary Offenses From The Same incident

In a divided opinion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the Superior Court’s decision. The majority opinion found that this was a straightforward case of statutory interpretation and that the language of Rule 110 is clear and unambiguous. The Court found that all four elements of Rule 110 were met. Specifically, the defendant was found guilty for driving without lights, his DUI case arose out of the same episode as his driving without lights conviction, the prosecutor was aware of this conviction, and finally, his traffic conviction occurred in the same judicial district as his DUI case. Because all of the elements of Rule 110 were met, the Commonwealth was barred from prosecuting the defendant’s DUI case due to the prior traffic case.

Additionally, the majority opinion found that there was no rule that prohibited the Commonwealth from prosecuting the defendant’s traffic offense with his DUI charge. The Commonwealth’s argument that traffic cases must be prosecuted in the traffic division of Municipal Court was not accurate because the Commonwealth had the option of trying the defendant for the summary traffic citations in the criminal case. The majority opinion also reiterated that a summary offense can trigger Double Jeopardy protections, even though the consequences are usually less severe than those of a misdemeanor or a felony. Finally, the majority opinion acknowledged that this will cause problems for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, but nonetheless the Commonwealth is still precluded from prosecuting the defendant’s case due to Rule 110 and the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution. .

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals and other successful results in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, DUI, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.

PA Supreme Court: Concerns About Officer Safety Do Not Justify Suspicionless Seizure of Motorist

PA Supreme Court: Concerns About Officer Safety Do Not Justify Suspicionless Seizure of Motorist

In the recent case of Commonwealth v. Adams, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reiterated once again that police cannot conduct a stop without reasonable suspicion, and a stop occurs when a reasonable person would not feel free to leave due to some action taken by the officer.

PA Superior Court Approves Current Philadelphia Police DUI Checkpoint Procedures

PA Superior Court Approves Current Philadelphia Police DUI Checkpoint Procedures

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Mercado, holding that Philadelphia Police conducted a constitutional DUI checkpoint despite the fact that the officer who planned the checkpoint selected the location of the checkpoint without any data indicating how many DUIs have occurred at the location of the checkpoint.