A "1543" offense in Pennsylvania is one of the most serious offenses that a driver in the Keystone State may face. A Pennsylvania driver who is charged with a 1543 traffic offense will generally face such a situation because his or her license is suspended due to a non-DUI-related suspension, which is known as a 1543(a) charge, or due to a DUI-related suspension, which is known as a 1543(b) charge. Both charges are serious and can cause severe consequences not only for a defendant's driving privileges, insurance rates, and related concerns, but potentially also put a defendant's freedom at risk.
When a driver in Pennsylvania is cited for driving with a suspended license, whether non-DUI or DUI-related, the frustration of getting caught will often become concern for what lies ahead. Because the potential consequences for driving with a suspended license in Pennsylvania can be severe, it is critical to understand how the prosecution may proceed with its case against the person charged.
What needs to be proven against the driver in a 1543(a) case in Pennsylvania?
In a criminal trial for a violation of Section 1543(a), the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) must prove actual notice to the operator (driver) whose license has been suspended or revoked as an element of the crime. Proof of actual notice beyond a reasonable doubt is not sufficient when the only evidence presented is that a notice was mailed. However, when there is additional evidence, such as evidence that the defendant returned his or her driver's license to the Bureau of Traffic Safety pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1541, the evidence was sufficient to demonstrate actual notice.
Notice is a question of fact, and anything that proves knowledge or is legal evidence showing that knowledge exists may be sufficient. Commonwealth v. Vetrini, 1999 Pa.Super. 148, 734 A.2d 404 (1999). Factors to be considered to determine whether a driver licensee had actual notice of the suspension include evidence that PennDOT sent notice to his current address, and statements by the driver indicating knowledge, or any conduct demonstrating circumstantially or directly that he had knowledge of the suspension.
What situations will be considered "actual notice" in a driving with a suspended license case in Pennsylvania?
A defendant received actual notice of a license suspension when: 1) the Bureau of Traffic Safety Operations mailed official notice of the suspension to the defendant's current address; 2) the defendant had previously surrendered his license to the Bureau in response to a previous notice of suspension mailed to the same address; and 3) the defendant did not possess a driver's license when he was stopped for a motor vehicle violation. These issues were considered by the Pennsylvania courts in the case of Commonwealth v. Gray, 356 Pa.Super. 299, 514 A.2d 621 (1986).
The Pennsylvania Superior Court addressed concerns regarding insufficient evidence to support a conviction for a driving while under a DUI-suspended license charge in the case of Commonwealth v. Martin, 346 Pa.Super. 129, 499 A.2d 344 (1985). When the only additional evidence offered by the prosecution (known as the "Commonwealth" in such Pennsylvania court proceedings) was a notation on the defendant's certified driving record that an "affidavit" was received by the Department of Transportation, with nothing to indicate its specific nature, the motion for acquittal on the 1543(b) charge (driving with a DUI-suspended license) should have been granted.
In the case of Commonwealth v. Brewington, 779 A.2d 525 (Pa.Super. 2001), a defendant surrendered his license a month before his arrest for driving under a DUI suspension. The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that when a defendant in Pennsylvania was placed on ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition) for the underling DUI case and at that time was told that his license suspension would be effective the date he surrendered it, notice was considered sufficient under Section 1543(b), even though PennDOT's notice had a different, later suspension date.
What happens if I do not have a license and I am caught driving with a suspended license in Pennsylvania?
To establish a defense to driving while under suspension, at a minimum, the defendant must produce a driver's license at the time of the offense or within 15 days thereafter. Otherwise, the driver's failure to produce the license is presumptive knowledge of the suspension. The Pennsylvania court case of Commonwealth v. Dietz, 423 Pa.Super. 366, 621 A.2d 160 (1993), established this principle.
In contrast, to sustain a conviction for driving under a non-DUI-related suspension, the prosecution (the "Commonwealth") may prove notice of the underlying suspension by establishing that the driver failed to produce a license when stopped, because that failure demonstrates knowledge of suspension.
Does not having a driver's license prove that I knew I was driving with a DUI-related suspension in Pennsylvania?
When a driver is charged with violating Section 1543(b) for driving under a suspension for a DUI-related offense, however, a failure to possess a license does not demonstrate that the driver knows that the underlying suspension is for a DUI-related offense. Therefore, failure to produce a valid license when stopped does not preclude a driver charged with driving under a DUI-related suspension from asserting that the Commonwealth has failed to prove actual notice for the underlying DUI-related suspension. This principle was addressed in the Pennsylvania court case of Commonwealth v. Taylor, 437 Pa.Super. 102, 649 A.2d 453 (1994).
Does a "habitual offender" in Pennsylvania have a defense to a 1543 charge?
A habitual offender in Pennsylvania will always have additional concerns if charged with driving with a suspended license. A habitual offender may, however, be able to invoke a particular defense if specific circumstances allow. Namely, Section 1542 of Pennsylvania's Motor Vehicle Code addresses the "revocation of habitual offender's license." Under 1542(d), the police officer is required verify the basis for the suspension or revocation with PennDOT before filing a citation for a violation of Section 1543 with the issuing authority. Upon receiving the verification, the police officer is then required to cite the appropriate subsection of Section 1543 on the citation against the habitual offender.
A police officer's failure to obtain official verification prior to filing a citation is a defect in procedure to which Pa.R.Crim.P. 109 applies, and under these circumstances the driver licensee may challenge a § 1543 violation if he or she can demonstrate that he or she suffered "manifest and palpable harm" as a result of the police officer's non-compliance with 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1543(d).
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Facing a 1543 charge in Pennsylvania can be difficult; this will the case whether the 1543 charge involves a DUI-suspended driver's license or a driver's license that is suspended for other reasons. Whether a person has to drive to and from work or school, or has personal or family obligations that require a valid driver's license, being convicted of a driving while suspended traffic offense can have severe consequences. In addition to the prospect of an additional period of license suspension, the prospect of incarceration is an unfortunate reality, and Pennsylvania Courts do not hesitate to sentence people to jail. It is critical to make sure that all possible steps are taken to defend against a 1543(a) charge or a 1543(b) charge because depending on a person's circumstances, there can be hope for a better resolution than what is otherwise mandated by Pennsylvania law.
If you or a loved one have questions or concerns about a driving with a suspended license charge in Pennsylvania, including, but not limited to, Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Berks, Lancaster, Lehigh, or Northampton County, contact skilled attorney Joseph D. Lento today to learn how he can help.