A three-judge Commonwealth Court panel Tuesday upheld the suspension of a Philadelphia woman’s car registration for allowing her insurance to lapse, although one judge scolded the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for filing an appeal when evidence showed the woman had been recuperating from heart failure and did not drive without insurance.
“Standing down in this case would have preserved PennDOT’s resources to pursue other more egregious violations” of the state vehicle code, wrote Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt.
The case centers on Marquetta Whiten, who spent several months living with her mother last year after doctors diagnosed her condition, according to court papers. While she was away from home, bills and other mail piled up, the insurance policy on her 16-year-old sedan was terminated and, as a result, PennDOT suspended her car registration for three months.
Whiten appealed and a Philadelphia judge rescinded the suspension in February.
In sustaining PennDOT’s appeal, the Commonwealth Court panel said PennDOT established that the insurance on Whiten’s car had been canceled and that her situation did not fit any of the limited exceptions to the suspension requirement in the state Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law.
“The trial court sustained Whiten’s appeal because of ‘equity and fairness,”‘ Judge Bernard McGinley wrote in the panel’s opinion. “Unfortunately, this was not within the trial court’s authority.”
No published telephone number was available for Whiten, who represented herself in the case.
In a separate opinion accompanying the panel’s opinion, Leavitt said she was disappointed that PennDOT chose to exercise its prosecutorial discretion to pursue an appeal.
The purpose of the law “is not to force people to adopt tidy habits with respect to their financial affairs. It is to keep uninsured motorists off the road,” the judge wrote. “The trial court found, as fact, that Marquetta Whiten did not operate her vehicle at any time after its insurance lapsed because she was incapacitated by heart failure and living in her mother’s home.”
Jan McKnight, PennDOT’s community relations director, declined to comment directly on the court case but said the department notifies vehicle owners whenever insurance companies report the termination of policies. If the owners do not respond, PennDOT follows up with letters giving six weeks’ notice of a suspension.
“At the end of the day, insurance is required for all (people) who have valid registrations on their vehicles,” she said.
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