PA Superior Court: Summary Traffic Offenses May Be Charged Separately From Serious Offenses in Philadelphia

For many years, it was the routine practice of the Philadelphia Police Department to charge summary traffic offenses and more serious charges like DUI or possessory offenses separately. For example, if police pulled a car over for speeding and ultimately found a gun in the car or ended up charging the driver with DUI, then the Commonwealth would bring the summary speeding charge in Philadelphia Traffic Court and the more serious gun charge or DUI charge in either the Municipal Court or the Court of Common Pleas. Thus, a defendant who wished to challenge the traffic citation would be required to attend twice as many court dates and hire a defense attorney twice.

This practice arguably violates Pennsylvania's compulsory joinder statute. Pennsylvania has a compulsory joinder statute which is codified at 18 Pa C.S. § 110. At its most basic level, a compulsory joinder statute requires the prosecution to bring charges which arise out of the same incident together in a single prosecution. This spares the defendant the additional time, expense, and stress of defending against two separate cases, and in this sense, compulsory joinder is very similar and related to the idea of Double Jeopardy – that a defendant may not be prosecuted for the same crime twice. Pennsylvania appellate courts had repeatedly ruled that under a prior version of Section 110 (the joinder statute), summary offenses were just different and did not count because the Court of Common Pleas held jurisdiction over misdemeanors and felonies and the Magisterial District Courts had jurisdiction over summaries. Therefore, the prosecution and police could bring summary traffic prosecutions in traffic court and misdemeanor and felony prosecutions in the Municipal Court and Court of Common Pleas.

In 2002, the Pennsylvania Legislature amended the statute to change language requiring compulsory joinder where the offenses occurred within courts of the same jurisdiction to offenses which occurred within the same judicial district. This language arguably has a dramatic impact. Instead of summaries being different due to the differing jurisdictions of the courts, the question became whether the offense occurred in the same judicial district. This issue became even more important approximately ten years later when the Philadelphia Traffic Court became enmeshed in scandal and was abolished. After the court was abolished, its functions were merged into the Philadelphia Municipal Court – Traffic Division. Thus, any argument that summary offenses were not within the same judicial district or that the Municipal Court did not have jurisdiction became extremely weak, and defense lawyers began to successfully move for cases to be dismissed due to the fact that summary traffic cases arising out of the same stop had already been resolved.

In the vast majority of cases, the traffic ticket would be resolved much faster than the criminal case. The traffic court hearings were scheduled more quickly, and if a defendant failed to appear for court, the defendant would be found guilty in absentia. Further, many defendants pay their traffic tickets online, by phone, or through the mail rather than going to court to fight them. This meant that a traffic court case could be disposed of within a month or two, and the defense could then move to dismiss the criminal case as violating the compulsory joinder rule. Once prosecutions realized they had a potential problem, Philadelphia Police quickly changed their procedures and stopped issuing traffic tickets in cases where they also intended to charge the defendant with a more serious crime. However, many existing cases were successfully dismissed because the traffic tickets had already been resolved.

Although this issue is not as prevalent today because a large number of the cases in which this happened have already been resolved, the Superior Court has just held that the unique rules establishing the Philadelphia Municipal Court – Traffic Division trump the compulsory joinder rule and allow the traffic citations to be issued separately from the criminal charges.   

On August 30, 2017, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued its decision in Commonwealth v. Perfetto. The Superior Court overturned the trial court’s decision granting Mr. Perfetto’s Motion to Dismiss. Although this decision is limited to Philadelphia, it could potentially affect a large number of defendants who are charged with Driving Under The Influence (“DUI.”)

Commonwealth v. Perfetto

In July 2014, Mr. Perfetto was arrested in Philadelphia and charged with three counts of “DUI.” Mr. Perfetto was also charged with the summary offense of driving without lights as required, a traffic citation. Although traffic citations are not considered very serious, they are still summary offenses, and all summary offenses are crimes under Pennsylvania law. In September 2014, Mr. Perfetto was found guilty of the traffic citation by the Philadelphia Municipal Court – Traffic Division. In June 2015, Mr. Perfetto filed a motion to dismiss in his DUI case, arguing that § 110 barred the prosecution. The trial court agreed with Mr. Perfetto and dismissed the DUI case. The court granted the motion because Mr. Perfetto’s case satisfied the four requirements of § 110. Shortly thereafter, the Commonwealth filed an appeal, arguing that Mr. Perfetto’s subsequent DUI prosecution was not barred by § 110. 

What is Double Jeopardy and § 110?

Double Jeopardy is mentioned in both the United States Constitution (5th Amendment) and the Pennsylvania Constitution (Article 1, Section 10). Double Jeopardy is the rule that the same government cannot put you on trial for the same charges twice. For example, let’s say a defendant is accused of punching a complainant in the face and is charged with Simple Assault and Recklessly Endangering Another Person (REAP). If the defendant was acquitted of these charges, the same government could not put that defendant on trial again for those charges because Double Jeopardy would forbid it. This rule does not always apply against other levels of government. For example, a federal prosecution will prevent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from bringing a subsequent prosecution, but a Pennsylvania prosecution will not prevent the United States from bringing a federal prosecution.     

The idea of compulsory joinder is similar and arises out of many of the same concerns of Double Jeopardy. As previously explained, Section 110 provides Pennsylvania’s compulsory joinder rule. § 110 is similar to the Double Jeopardy clauses of the Pennsylvania and U.S. Constitutions, but more nuanced. § 110 is the codification of the rule announced in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision of Commonwealth v. Campana, 304 A.2d 432 Pa. 1973). In Campana, the Court held that ‘the Double Jeopardy Clause requires a prosecutor to bring, in a single proceeding, all known charges against a defendant arising from a single criminal episode.” Id. at 374. This is known as compulsory joinder. Using the same example above, let’s say that in addition to punching the complaining witness, the defendant also told said this person that he was going to kill him (arguably a Terroristic Threat), however the government only charged him with Simple Assault and REAP. Assuming this defendant is acquitted again, the defendant could not subsequently be tried for the crime of Terroristic Threats. The reason is because the “terroristic threat” came from the same criminal episode as the assault. Again, this would only prevent Pennsylvania from bringing a second prosecution; the federal government may still be able to bring federal charges.  

In order to be successful when bringing a § 110 motion to dismiss, the defense must show four things: 1) the former prosecution resulted in an acquittal or conviction; 2) the current prosecution was based on the same criminal conduct or arose from the same criminal episode; 3) the prosecutor in the subsequent trial was aware of the charges before the first trial; and 4) all the charges are within the same judicial district as the former prosecution. The key issue in Mr. Perfetto’s case was the fourth prong of this analysis because it was the fourth prong that changed in the 2002 amendment to the compulsory joinder rule.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court Holds that Philadelphia’s Traffic Division of Municipal Court is a Separate Judicial District

In overturning the trial court’s decision, the Pennsylvania Superior Court made a very technical finding. First, the Court looked to 42 Pa C.S.A. § 1302, a statute which addresses traffic courts. In analyzing the statute, the Court held that when a traffic offense is resolved in a jurisdiction with a traffic court, there is no violation of § 110 if the more serious criminal charges are filed separately. In other words, if a jurisdiction does not have a traffic court, then § 110 would apply if a defendant resolved the traffic offense prior to their criminal offense, but the same is not true when the jurisdiction has a traffic court.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia is different than other jurisdictions in Pennsylvania because its traffic court is specifically mentioned in § 1302. In 2013, Philadelphia’s traffic court merged with Philadelphia’s Municipal Court. This created two divisions: the General Division and the Traffic Division. Therefore, the Municipal Court has jurisdiction over both traffic and criminal offenses. Thus, prior to Perfetto, defense attorneys would argue that because Philadelphia does not have a separate traffic court, §110 applied for traffic offenses.

The Superior Court has now rejected this argument at least as it applies to Philadelphia courts. The Superior Court noted that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the power to create rules for the general practice and procedure of the Courts. With this in mind, the Superior Court focused on a May 2014 comment to Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 1001(D) which addresses Philadelphia Municipal Court.  The comment stated:

This rule, which defines “Municipal Court case,” is intended to ensure that the Municipal Court will take dispositive action, including trial and verdict when appropriate, in any criminal case that does not involve a felony, excluding summary cases under the Vehicle Code. The latter are under the jurisdiction of the Municipal Court Traffic Division, the successor of the Philadelphia Traffic Court.

Pa.R.Crim.P. 1001(D), cmt.

As such, the Superior Court held that the Supreme Court’s intent was for the traffic division of the Municipal Court to exclusively hear the traffic offenses. Thus, the Superior Court held that, in essence, Philadelphia’s Municipal Court traffic division is analogous to a jurisdiction with its own separate traffic court. Consequently, the Superior Court held that § 110 does not bar subsequent prosecution of a criminal offense when there has been a prior disposition of a traffic offense in Philadelphia. The Superior Court reversed the ruling of the trial court, and Mr. Perfetto’s case was remanded back to the Philadelphia Municipal Court for trial.

DUI Cases     

At this point, the impact of Perfetto is relatively limited. For a number of years, unpublished opinions of the Pennsylvania Superior Court reached the opposite conclusion, so a large number of cases have already been dismissed and cannot be reinstated. For those cases which were on appeal and awaiting the decision in Perfetto, the defendants will now face prosecution once again. However, the Philadelphia Police Department stopped issuing separate traffic citations a number of years ago due to this rule, so the decision is not likely to substantially affect newly charged defendants. Certainly, Perfetto will likely be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the issue may not be resolved. 

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

As always, DUI cases can be very technical and there are a number of ways to beat them.  If you are charged with DUI, you need an attorney who has the knowledge and expertise to fight your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully fought countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.