DUI cases fail based on Blair County judge’s ruling
HOLLIDAYSBURG — Criminal charges in two Blair County DUI cases are in jeopardy in light of recent judicial rulings that suppressed evidence based on unjustified traffic stops.
In one of the DUI cases, Judge Elizabeth A. Doyle found that a state police trooper didn’t have sufficient reason to initiate a traffic stop on Sept. 3, 2021, after a Claysburg driver allowed the passenger side wheels of his vehicle to cross a fog line for nine seconds.
In a second case, Doyle reviewed video recorded April 10, 2021, by a Hollidaysburg Borough police officer and found that it wasn’t good enough to show that the officer saw a traffic violation, the reason he stopped a Hollidaysburg motorist who was subsequently charged with DUI.
Defense attorney Thomas M. Dickey challenged the charges by contending that the traffic stops weren’t justified. Based on Doyle’s decisions, evidence in support of the DUI and related charges has been suppressed.
Dickey said Thursday that he was pleased with both rulings, as well as the time and attention that the judge devoted to them.
One of the rulings, however, could be subject to further review.
In the Hollidaysburg case, Assistant District Attorney Jessica Weil has filed a request asking the judge to reconsider her decision. In that case, Weil wants the judge to convene a hearing and take testimony from the police officer who filed the charges. The officer wasn’t available to attend a prior hearing in the case.
Doyle acknowledged that her decision was based only on a review of the police officer’s video with “insufficient evidence” of a traffic violation, erratic driving, intoxication or any criminal activity to justify stopping the driver.
Court documents filed by the police officer indicate the driver failed to stop for a signal light at Allegheny Street, before making a wide right turn onto North Juniata Street.
Doyle said that the police officer’s video left her unable to determine if the driver had gone through a “stale” yellow light or a red light. When the driver approached the intersection, the judge said it appeared the light was turning from green to yellow. As for the driver’s wide turn, the judge offered no concern about that being a violation.
“The video shows the police officer had to make a wide turn when he went around the same corner,” the judge wrote in her ruling.
Doyle also pointed out in her ruling that the officer reported following the driver west on North Juniata Street and seeing the driver cross the double yellow line and white fog line on multiple occasions. But those allegations aren’t visible on the video, the judge said.
In the DUI case involving the Claysburg driver, the state trooper reported seeing the driver traveling south on Dunnings Highway, before making a right turn onto Quarry Road, Greenfield Township. During that time, and aided by a video recording, it was documented that the vehicle’s passenger side tires crossed the fog line for nine seconds.
During a June 9 court hearing, then Assistant District Attorney Ilissa Zimmerman argued that the officer was justified in stopping the driver because both of his passenger wheels were over the fog line for more than just a moment.
Dickey challenged that position by asking the trooper if he saw any other driving errors and the trooper said no.
In making her ruling, Doyle said she reviewed two appellate court rulings that considered if police had probable cause to stop a motorist when the only behavior observed was a fleeting transgression.
In a 2001 decision by the state Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Gleason, the court found no evidence that a driver created a safety hazard by momentarily crossing onto the berm of the road. In a 2004 ruling by the state Superior Court in Commonwealth vs. Garcia, that court found that two brief incidents of drifting across the berm line within a two block distance wasn’t sufficient reason for a traffic stop.
Based on those cases and the lack of other infractions, Doyle said she would grant the motion to suppress the evidence.
“Nine seconds does not establish probable cause to effectuate a traffic stop,” she said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.