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Reversal of DUI License Suspension: Insights from Megan Elizabeth Rickell v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (February 24, 2023)

Town Law Publishing March 2, 2024

DUI checkpointMegan Elizabeth Rickell v. DOT, No. 1034 C.D. 2020 (Feb. 24, 2023)

The case of Megan Elizabeth Rickell v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing presents a critical examination of how Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) is considered in the context of license suspension for DUI offenses. This article delves into the background of the case, the decision of the lower court, and provides a thorough analysis of the Superior Court's reasoning and decision.

Background of the Case

Megan Elizabeth Rickell, the Licensee, was arrested on March 8, 2019, and charged with two misdemeanor counts of Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol or a Controlled Substance (DUI). On September 17, 2019, she was accepted into the ARD program. However, her ARD was revoked due to new criminal charges before completion. Consequently, on May 11, 2020, Rickell pleaded guilty to a single count of DUI as a first offense under Section 3802(a)(1) of the Vehicle Code.

Following her conviction, PennDOT suspended Rickell's operating privilege for 12 months pursuant to Section 3804(e)(2)(i) of the Vehicle Code. Rickell appealed this suspension to the trial court.

Lower Court's Decision

The trial court initially granted Rickell's appeal and rescinded her license suspension, relying on the precedent set by Commonwealth v. Chichkin. However, upon reconsideration, the court declined to apply Chichkin, which it found limited to criminal proceedings. Instead, the trial court determined that Rickell's acceptance into the ARD program constituted a "prior offense" for civil suspension purposes under the plain language of Section 3806. Citing Diveglia v. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Driver Licensing, the court clarified that the term "prior offense" in civil proceedings included convictions as well as preliminary dispositions such as ARD. Consequently, the trial court sustained the 12-month suspension of Rickell's operating privilege.

 contemporary courtroom sceneSuperior Court's Reasoning and Decision

Rickell contended that her ARD acceptance should not be considered a prior offense under Section 3806(a), arguing that her single DUI offense served as the underlying offense for both her ARD acceptance and her subsequent conviction. She asserted that there was no "prior offense" and, therefore, she should be exempt from the 12-month suspension under Section 3804(e)(2)(iii).

The Superior Court, in its analysis, emphasized that Section 3806's plain language requires two separate and distinct offenses to establish a "prior offense." The court noted that ARD is a pretrial disposition and not an offense itself. It is considered an interlocutory matter where the resolution of the criminal prosecution is held in abeyance.

The court further reasoned that the temporal language employed by the legislature in Section 3806(a) implies that there must be two separate and distinct offenses for one to be considered a "prior offense." In Rickell's case, there was only one DUI offense for which she had accepted ARD, had her ARD revoked, and ultimately entered a guilty plea. This did not constitute two separate offenses under the statute.

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The Superior Court concluded that the legislature did not intend for a licensee in Rickell's circumstances to be considered a second-time DUI offender for purposes of license suspension. Therefore, the court held that Rickell remained eligible for the exception to suspension consequences defined at Section 3804(e)(2). As a result, the Superior Court reversed the trial court's order, sustaining Rickell's appeal and setting aside the 12-month suspension of her operating privilege. This decision underscores the importance of distinguishing between a single offense with multiple dispositions and two separate offenses when considering license suspension for DUI convictions.