Comm. v. Wright, 2018 PA Super 13 (Jan. 26, 2018)

This is an appeal out of Delaware County.  It involves a DUI charge from 1990 and the application of Rule 600.  (Rule 600 is a Rule of Criminal Procedure that provides a remedy for a speedy-trial violation.  The general rule in Pennsylvania is a defendant must be brought to trial within 365 days of the complaint being filed.)

Briefly, the timeline of this case is this:

  • 7/10/1990:   Criminal Complaint issued against Wright for DUI
  • 09/18/1990: Preliminary Hearing held; charges held over
  • 10/18/1990: Arraigned; Wright signed notice to appear on Nov.

13, 1990 and Nov. 19, 1990

Wright failed to appear on November 13, 1990, so a bench warrant issued.  However, on November 19, 1990, Wright did appear and the bench warrant was rescinded.  Wright was advised to return to court on November 26, 1990, and he was given a notice to that effect, which he signed.  He did not show again; therefore, another bench warrant issued.

Fast forward to the Fall of 2016: Wright received a mailing from the Sheriff that a bench warrant existed for his arrest and he should turn himself in.  In the preceding 26 years, Wright had been arrested and incarcerated in multiple jurisdictions.  Ultimately, Wright turned himself in in this case on October 3, 2016 and later filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 600, alleging that his right to a speedy trial had been violated under Rule 600.  The trial court had agreed.

The trial court’s conclusion rested upon Pa. Supreme Court precedent that held “‘a defendant on bail who fails to appear at a court proceeding . . . is unavailable from the time of such proceeding until he is subsequently apprehended or until he voluntarily surrenders.’”  “The court reasoned that because Wright had been arrested in three other cases during the 25-year period, he was ‘subsequently apprehended’ . . . . ‘The Commonwealth was, again, thereby on notice of Wright’s whereabouts, but did not lodge a detainer or proceed with his case.’”

The focus of the Superior Court’s analysis was on the phrase “subsequently apprehended,” which had never been defined. The Superior Court noted that there is no case that interprets “subsequently apprehended” to mean “when a defendant is arrested for a different crime in a different jurisdiction.”   Here, the Superior Court concluded “Wright’s subsequent arrests in other jurisdictions during the time the [DUI] charges were pending, did not restart the Rule 600 clock.”  The Superior Court stated:

Although we appreciate the trial court’s concern that Wright’s ‘ability to mount a defense to a DUI charge that is 25 years old has been seriously thwarted,’ we must emphasize that the delay was caused solely by his own deliberate actions.

In a concluding footnote the Superior Court noted “the delay may prejudice the Commonwealth in prosecuting the case, as well.”  The take-away for practitioners should be this: The Commonwealth owes no duty of diligence to locate a defendant when a defendant fails to appear at a scheduled court proceeding they are aware of.