A DUI adjudication as a minor does not preclude a person from qualifying for the first-time offender exception that allows one to avoid a driver’s license suspension, the Commonwealth Court has ruled.

A three-judge panel declined to endorse the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s theory that adjudications of driving under the influence under the Juvenile Act are different than convictions under the state’s Vehicle Code for the purpose of imposing suspensions of driving privileges.

PennDOT’s appeal in Clark v. Commonwealth was unopposed and submitted on the briefs.

Jacob C. Clark, who represented himself before the trial court, had argued his case fit within the Vehicle Code’s provision that a first-time offender may avoid a license suspension for an ungraded misdemeanor DUI, as long as that person is subjected to other penalties under the law.
 PennDOT, on the other hand, said that while Clark had been subjected to the penalties under the Juvenile Act, it was irrelevant that those penalties in fact matched the same ones set forth in the Vehicle Code at 75 Pa.C.S. 3804(e)(2)(iii) — a fine, counseling and classes.

Because, technically, Clark was not convicted under the Vehicle Code (but rather adjudicated delinquent), he was not sentenced under Section 3804(a). If there was no sentence under the Vehicle Code, PennDOT argued, the no-suspension exception did not apply in the instant case.

Clark was 17 at the time of the incident that led to his adjudication for DUI, the opinion said.

The Bedford County Court of Common Pleas, however, rejected PennDOT’s theory and the Commonwealth Court agreed.

The trial court emphasized that the statute says a person must be "subject to the penalties" in Section 3804(a), rather than "subject to 3804(a)" itself.

Judge Robert Simpson, writing for the panel, added that other language in Section 3804 that describes the suspension requirement itself provides the suspension requirement applies to either a conviction under the Vehicle Code or an adjudication of delinquency.

As the statute puts it: "The department shall suspend the operating privilege of an individual under paragraph (2) upon receiving a certified record of the individual’s conviction of or an adjudication of delinquency for: (i) an offense under Section 3802; or (ii) an offense which is substantially similar to an offense enumerated in Section 3802 reported to the department under Article III of the compact in Section 1581 (relating to Driver’s License Compact)."

The exception section is less detailed, saying only: "There shall be no suspension for an ungraded misdemeanor under Section 3802(a) where the person is subject to the penalties provided in Subsection (a) and the person has no prior offense."

Subsection (a) calls for a person to undergo a mandatory minimum of six months’ probation, pay a $300 fine, attend classes on alcohol highway safety, and undergo drug and alcohol treatment.

The juvenile court ordered Clark to serve probation for a year, pay a $300 fine, successfully complete alcohol highway safety school and complete outpatient drug and alcohol counseling.

According to the opinion, Clark entered into a consent decree with the trial court in 2010 following his arrest. As a result, PennDOT imposed a six-month suspension.

However, the Bedford County district attorney sought to revoke the consent degree, alleging Clark violated its terms. The trial court revoked the decree and ordered Clark to serve probation, pay the fine and undergo the education.

PennDOT imposed a one-year license suspension under 75 Pa.C.S. Section 3804(e)(2)(i) at this time. However, after a de novo hearing in which Clark opposed his suspension pro se, the trial court lifted the suspension under the language of the statute.

The Office of the General Counsel declined comment through a spokesman.

Clark could not be reached for comment.

Ben Present can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or bpresent@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @BPresentTLI.

(Copies of the 14-page opinion in Clark v. Commonwealth, PICS No. 13-0345, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.)