PA Superior Court Issues Gentle Reminder That Courts May Not Punish Defendants For Being Poor

Can a judge punish a DUI defendant for not being able to afford a drug and alcohol evaluation? 

The Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Dennis. In Dennis, the court  held that a trial court may not revoke an indigent DUI defendant's bail and incarcerate the defendant for failure to obtain a pre-sentence drug and alcohol evaluation. Although the Superior Court found that Dennis had no remedy because he had already served his sentence for DUI and had not spent any extra time in jail, the case should hopefully end the somewhat common practice of judges putting defendants in jail to obtain their evaluations in cases where the defendant cannot afford the evaluation.

What is a CRN evaluation? 

Pennsylvania's complicated DUI law requires defendants to obtain a Court Reporting Network ("CRN") evaluation upon conviction for DUI. The CRN investigates both whether the defendant has prior DUI convictions which could lead to increased mandatory minimum sentences for the conviction and whether the defendant has a drug or alcohol problem requiring additional treatment. The sentencing judge is then supposed to consider the CNR evaluation during sentencing, but in the majority of DUI cases that do not involve an accident, the defendant typically does not receive more than the mandatory minimum because DUI mandatory minimums are extremely high in Pennsylvania.

Of course, the CRN evaluation is not free. Instead, depending on the county, the court typically requires the defendant to pay approximately $100 in order to have the evaluation done by a provider which has contracted with the county. Further, although courts impose significant fines and costs for DUI convictions, they have not been willing to collect the fee for the CRN evaluation as part of the court costs after sentencing. Although $100 may not seem like a lot, this can be a substantial amount for someone who is out of work. 

Unlike defendants who are on pre-sentence bail, defendants who are incarcerated will have the CRN conducted from custody without having to pay money up front. Therefore, judges in Philadelphia and other counties have a tendency to revoke the bail of defendants who show up to sentencing without having their CRN evaluation completed. Then, the CRN will be done from custody, and the judge can impose sentence. In cases involving second or subsequent offenses, this may not make a huge difference for the individual defendant as the defendant may be facing ninety days in jail or more and may not spend any additional time in jail. But for defendants who are facing a sentence for a first offense, the difference may be huge as the first offense conviction may not require any jail time at all depending on the tier of the offense. Therefore, a defendant who is facing a probationary sentence could spend weeks in jail waiting for a CRN evaluation and sentencing hearing.  

What happens if I can't afford the CRN evaluation? 

In Dennis, the defendant pleaded guilty to a second offense DUI. The trial court ordered him to obtain a CRN evaluation. When he returned to court without the results of the evaluation, the judge informed him that he could either have a week to come up with the $100 and get the evaluation or go to jail and have it done from the jail. The defendant told the judge that he was not working and could not come up with $100 in a week. The court told the defendant that that was his only option, so the defendant said he would rather go into custody and get it over with. Of course, the judge revoked the defendant's bail, ordered the CRN evaluation to be completed from custody, and eventually sentenced the defendant to the mandatory minimum for the offense. Notably, the judge did find the defendant's statement that he could not come up with $100 to be credible, meaning there was no dispute as to whether the defendant could actually afford the evaluation and simply did not wish to pay. 

The defendant appealed to the Superior Court on the issue of whether the judge could revoke the defendant's bail for failure to obtain the CRN in a case where the defendant cannot afford the evaluation. The Superior Court recognized that the DUI statute requiring the CRN evaluation is silent as to what should happen to a defendant who cannot afford the evaluation, but Pennsylvania law simply does not permit punishment to be imposed on a defendant solely because that person is indigent or poor. Further, the statute allows the probation and parole departments to collect the fines and costs after conviction based on the defendant's ability to pay, and therefore, the costs of the CRN evaluation should be handled in the same manner. Thus, the Superior Court issued a reminder that a trial court may not revoke a defendant's bail for failure to pay a fine or cost in cases where the defendant truly cannot afford to pay.

Goldstein Mehta LLC: Philadelphia DUI Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC: Philadelphia DUI Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers for DUI Charges

If you are facing DUI charges, call one of our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers today. We have handled countless DUI cases, and we know that DUI is far more complicated than it would seem. We know the defenses to DUI charges, and we will fight to protect your driver's license, reputation, and freedom. Call 267-225-2545 for a free DUI defense consultation.