A nine-judge panel of Superior Court has sided against a Fredonia woman who claimed Hempfield Township police had insufficient evidence to charge her with drunken driving, and elicited incriminating statements from her before she had been notified of her Miranda rights.

The ruling supports the determinations of Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher J. St. John, who denied the suppression motion of Hope L. Williams, 23, and Judge John C. Reed, who found her guilty at trial of drunken driving-second offense and careless driving.

The 34-page Superior Court opinion, written by Judge Susan Peikes Gantman, gave this account:

Hempfield police patrolman David R. Gregory responded at 6:12 a.m. June 12, 2005, to a call of a car stuck on railroad tracks on Kennard-Osgood Road, Sugar Grove Township.

A passerby who was with the unconscious Ms. Williams said she saw the car stuck on the tracks with the engine running and the front wheels still turning. Ms. Williams was sleeping in the back seat. The passerby put the car in park and turned off the engine.

Gregory detected a strong odor of alcohol.

Prior to an ambulance arriving, Ms. Williams came to, and was unsteady in her walking. She said she had been alone, and had operated the car, but was vague when asked what happened. She could not find her driver’s license or registration.

Gregory informed Ms. Williams of her right to remain silent and other Miranda rights at 6:41 a.m., after which she admitted driving the car and said she had drunk beer.

Gregory did not administer field sobriety tests because Ms. Williams was too unsteady, and she refused to have a blood-alcohol test conducted.

Ms. Williams tried to suppress her statement that she was driving, and argued prosecutors had not shown she was driving. St. John disagreed. He said the evidence without her admission that she was driving showed a “reasonable inference” that Ms. Williams had been driving.

Superior Court said St. John drew correct legal conclusions from the facts.

In Ms. Williams’ argument that she gave incriminating statements before being told of her legal rights, she pointed out that Gregory had moved her out of the road; called for a tow truck and an ambulance; told her to “sit tight and just wait”; and looked through her car. These circumstances show she had been detained and Gregory should have given her Miranda warnings, she said.

Superior Court concluded Gregory was not obligated to inform her of her Miranda warnings prior to when he did so. The court said Gregory temporarily detained her to get general information about the accident. They talked in public, he used no restraints, did not subject her to a field sobriety test, and gave her Miranda warnings within 30 minutes of his arrival, the court said.

“Under these circumstances, we hold Appellant’s initial detention was not so coercive or her freedom so curtailed as to constitute a formal arrest,” Gantman said.

Ms. Williams also had appealed St. John sentencing her to 30 days of house arrest under the Intermediate Punishment program and 5 months’ probation. Although she questioned whether IPP was proper when the drunken driving law calls for a prison sentence, she later concluded St. John had the authority. Superior Court examined the issue in depth anyway, and agreed the sentence was proper.

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