In 2005, in order to comply with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act and ensure Pennsylvania’s continued receipt of federal highway funds, the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code was amended to provide that certain violations in personal non-commercial vehicles could lead to a disqualification of someone’s CDL, including a lifetime disqualification. One such offense, not surprisingly, is DUI.
James Sondergaard got his CDL in 2000. He was convicted of two separate DUI offenses in December 2010, one having occurred in March 2010 and the second in August 2010. Both occurred in a personal non-commercial vehicle. He received a one year disqualification for the first conviction and a lifetime disqualification for the second. He timely appealed the lifetime disqualification arguing that the statute required him to be driving a commercial motor vehicle at the time of the DUI in order for the lifetime disqualification to apply. More specifically, he argued that the statute requiring the lifetime disqualification was penal in nature and, as such, required the rule of lenity to be applied.
The rule of lenity requires that when a statute is penal in nature, and the language of the statute is ambiguous, the statute is to be weighted in favor of the person against whom it is being applied and against the government. Though the trial court found in favor of Mr. Sondergaard, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, reversed that decision on PennDOT’s appeal.
The Commonwealth Court agreed that the lifetime disqualification is, in fact, penal in nature. However, they did not agree with the trial court that the statute was ambiguous. The statute in question provides, “where the person was a commercial driver at the time the violation occurred”, includes the person driving a commercial motor vehicle at the time as well as the person operating a non-commercial vehicle, but holding a CDL, at the time the violation occurred. This decision was based upon the definition of “commercial driver” contained in the Vehicle Code, which provides that a “commercial driver” is “a person who is either a commercial driver license holder as defined in section 1603 or who is driving a commercial vehicle”. As such, the Court held that there was no ambiguity and the lifetime disqualification imposed upon Mr. Sondergaard was, in fact, proper.
The full version of this decision can be found at James Sondergaard v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Transportation, 65 A.3d 994 (Cmwlth Ct. 2013).