An oversight by some employees in the York County Clerk of Courts office so far has led to about 2,000 people receiving driver's license suspensions years after their criminal cases were resolved.
And York County Clerk of Courts Don O'Shell said that number could rise to 4,000 or 5,000 defendants by the time his office finishes its internal review.
Defendants who plead guilty or are convicted of certain drug offenses — such as simple drug possession and drug dealing — automatically receive a six-month license suspension from the state Department of Transportation.
But some former clerks in O'Shell's office were not sending the required notification to PennDOT on those cases, meaning the state wasn't starting the clock on defendants' suspensions, according to O'Shell.
"I was unaware, and I should have been aware," he said. "I've read the (clerk of courts) manual more times than I can count."
O'Shell said all his clerks were sending the proper form to PennDOT for DUI-related cases.
Two deaths: O'Shell said he first started looking into the issue after learning about two cases in Philadelphia in which drivers whose licenses should have been suspended for drug convictions ended up killing people while driving.
The Philadelphia Inquirer article about the cases stated that for more than a decade, Philadelphia courts failed to notify PennDOT about suspending the licenses of tens of thousands of people who possessed or dealt illegal drugs.
"It piqued my curiosity," O'Shell said. "I decided to start running reports to see where we were."
And that's when he realized PennDOT notifications for drug offenses had not been made consistently, he said.
"We're finding certain clerks just didn't do it, while other clerks did," O'Shell said. "It wasn't picked up on by me and my management team."
Nearly all the clerks who failed to make PennDOT notifications are no longer with the office, but not for disciplinary reasons, he said.
They either found new jobs or moved from the area, he said.
'Revamped': "We've revamped the process so there won't be any judgment calls on the part of the clerks," he said. "And we'll be running reports every month (to be sure)."
From now on, clerks who fail to properly notify PennDOT will be disciplined, he said.
State law says county clerk of courts offices have 10 days to make notification to PennDOT on license suspensions, but it lists no statute of limitations, O'Shell said.
"I feel it's my obligation to submit the (old notifications)," he said. "I don't have any discretion in this. I must do what the law requires, albeit late."
O'Shell said ignoring the past mistakes could cause him to be cited with a summary offense or even removed from office.
Lebanon case: That's similar to what happened to Lisa Marie Arnold, 48, Lebanon County's clerk of courts. She remains charged with obstructing the administration of law and failing to comply with a court-reporting rule.
Authorities allege Arnold told underlings she was the only person in the office who could send DUI license-suspension notifications to PennDOT, then kept all those records in a plastic bag inside a filing cabinet, The Associated Press has reported.
So far, O'Shell's office has reviewed cases from as far back as 2008, he said.
The numbers: Of about 12,000 drug-offense notifications that needed to be made to PennDOT since 2008, "we missed about 2,000," he said.
O'Shell's staff began reviewing 2007 cases on Tuesday.
"And we're going to go all the way back to 2004, when I became clerk of courts," he said, meaning more missed notifications will likely be uncovered.
"I suspect the number will continue to grow, maybe by as much as 2,000 or 3,000 more," he said.
O'Shell said he's received calls from a few criminal attorneys and a couple of state legislators, who received complaints from clients and constituents, respectively.
Inconvenient: "Obviously I feel for these individuals, especially if they've gotten themselves together," he said. "I can see why it's unfair in their minds."
But there's never a good time to lose one's license, O'Shell said.
"It would have been inconvenient and prohibitive then, and it will be inconvenient and prohibitive now," O'Shell said.
York attorney Jeff Marshall said he's been contacted by several people, including two former clients, who were notified their licenses are being suspended.
One client's conviction is six years old, he said.
Appeals process: Marshall said the appeals standard set by recent Commonwealth Court decisions requires PennDOT to prove the suspension delay was not its fault.
If PennDOT can prove the delay was caused by another agency, such as a clerk of courts office, then the suspension is upheld on appeal, he said.
"There perhaps could be a challenge based on constitutional issues," Marshall said, but noted that relief granted by common pleas judges in some out-of-county cases was later overturned when PennDOT appealed to Commonwealth Court.
"Quite frankly, it just seems unfair to these clients. Most of them have completed their supervision, gained employment and moved on with their lives," Marshall said. "It's a significant hardship."