Relief could be on the horizon for York County defendants now learning they must serve six-month driver's-license suspensions on drug cases that are years old.
York County Clerk of Courts Don O'Shell said he was called recently by state Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, who is majority whip.
Saylor said he was looking into introducing legislation that would allow the affected defendants to obtain what's known as a "bread and butter" license, which would allow them to drive to and from work, according to O'Shell. He said he thinks that would be in the interests of justice.
"They should get some consideration for the delay where we're not impairing their ability to make a living, but they should (temporarily lose) the freedom of a full-fledged driver's license," O'Shell said. "We'll see what the legislature says."
The problem: An oversight by some employees in the clerk's office has so far led to about 2,600 people receiving their license suspensions years after their criminal cases were resolved.
Defendants who plead guilty or are convicted of certain drug offenses, including simple drug possession, automatically receive a mandatory six-month suspension from the state Department of Transportation.
But some former clerks weren't sending the required notification to PennDOT in those cases, meaning the state wasn't starting the clock on defendants' suspensions, O'Shell has said. He said he was unaware of the problem until recently.
Ongoing audit: O'Shell said he ordered an audit of all affected drug cases going back to 2004, the year he took office, after learning about two cases in Philadelphia in which drivers whose licenses should have been suspended ended up killing people while driving. The oversight predates O'Shell being elected, he said.
So far clerks have finished reviewing cases as far back as 2007 and found that PennDOT wasn't properly notified of about 2,600 cases out of 16,500. That's just under 16 percent of affected drug-related cases, the majority of which were simple drug possession charges, he said.
O'Shell said the audit will likely take another four to six weeks to complete. He estimated there will be about 4,000 affected cases, maybe less.
The clerk's office must notify PennDOT about the resolution of any case in which a defendant is charged with a drug offense that mandates a license suspension, even if the case is dropped or the defendant is acquitted.
What defendants knew: Some defendants now learning of their years-late suspensions have indicated their defense attorneys didn't tell them they faced a mandatory license suspension, O'Shell said.
York defense attorney Suzanne Smith said she finds those claims hard to believe. She is on the board of the York County Bar Association and is its past president.
"I think the majority of attorneys would have notified their clients," she said, but acknowledged people, including attorneys, can make mistakes.
Appeals increase: York County Prothonotary Pam Lee said the number of driver's-license appeals filed in July and August have more than doubled.
In July, 27 such appeals were filed, compared to 13 in July 2013, she said.
Between Aug. 1 and 17, people have filed 17 driver's-license appeals, according to Lee, who said there were only seven such appeals filed during the same period in 2013.
Fourteen of the appeals filed in July were in response to old charges that hadn't been reported to PennDOT in a timely manner, she said. And for August, 14 of the 17 appeals were for old charges, Lee said. The cost in York County to appeal a license suspension is $206, she said.
"There are a lot of very upset people, and understandably so," Lee said.
The court had initially reserved nine days to hear license appeals, but that was increased to 12 days after O'Shell's audit, according to Lee.
Plea forms: O'Shell said he believes adding a line to the county's guilty-plea forms — stating DUI and certain drug offenses come with mandatory license suspensions — could help ensure defendants receive proper notification.
"Basically two-thirds of our caseload are DUIs and drug offenses," he said.
O'Shell said he sent an email to York County President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh and to the county's court administration office about the idea.
York County Court Administrator Paul Crouse said the idea will be discussed, and it would be up to York County's judges to decide whether the change should be made.
Smith said she thinks some defense attorneys with the York County Bar Association previously proposed the idea, and would support it now.
"The more information we give our clients, the better off we are," she said.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com.