Evidence of Prior DUI Conviction and DUI Education Class Admissible to Establish Driver’s Mens Rea

Evidence of a prior DUI conviction and participation in a DUI education program is admissible as inferential evidence of a driver’s state of mind, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held in Com. v. Diehl, __ A.3d __ (No. 258 MDA 2015, filed Apr. 28, 2016). In the early morning hours of April 27, 2013, Matthew Diehl struck and killed Loganville Fire Chief Rodney Miller as he sped around Miller’s emergency vehicle at a roadblock on Interstate 83. Diehl was arrested on suspicion of DUI and transported for a blood draw, which indicated a .118 BAC. He was charged with third degree murder, homicide by vehicle-DUI, and other offenses. Prior to trial, the Commonwealth filed a motion in limine to introduce, inter alia, evidence of Diehl’s 2005 DUI conviction and attendance at alcohol awareness education classes. The trial court allowed the evidence for the limited purpose of showing that Diehl knew about, and disregarded, the dangers of drinking and driving. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty of third degree murder and convicted Diehl of the other charges. Diehl appealed, arguing that the evidence of his prior conviction and DUI classes was more prejudicial than probative.

On appeal, the Superior Court rejected Diehl’s argument and affirmed the trial court. Writing for the unanimous panel, President Judge Emeritus Stevens agreed with the trial court that the challenged evidence was admissible under Pa. R.E. 404(b) to prove malice, criminal negligence and recklessness by showing that Diehl disregarded the specialized knowledge he had acquired regarding the dangers of drinking and driving. Citing the near unanimity of other jurisdictions on the admissibility of prior DUI offenses and education programs to establish mens rea, the Court deemed the evidence especially compelling in this case given the lack of other evidence of malice. Indeed, Diehl’s expressions of confusion, remorse and concern following the accident, the Court observed, heightened the need for Rule 404(b) evidence as a means to infer Diehl’s state of mind leading up to the accident. The Court rejected Diehl’s argument that the evidence was unduly prejudicial, noting that the trial court admitted the evidence for a limited purpose and the jury acquitted Diehl of third degree murder.

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