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April 20, 2016

Philly nun guilty of drunken driving for New Jersey crash; has license suspended

Sister Kimberly Miller blamed incident on sleeping pill

A Philadelphia nun and teacher at the archdiocese's Little Flower High School was found guilty Wednesday of drunken driving for a crash in South Jersey late last year.

Municipal Court Judge Martin Whitcraft in Washington Township announced the verdict against Sister Kimberly Miller. Her driving privileges in New Jersey were suspended for 90-days, the minimum sentence for a first-offense conviction. 

Additionally, Miller was ordered to pay fines and fees of about $650.

On Nov. 7, the nun departed in a car from her North Philadelphia convent, drove across the bridge to New Jersey, and then crashed into the glass storefront of a Turnersville auto repair business.

Miller claimed the crash was the result of side effects from taking the sleeping pill Ambien, and her unawareness that the prescription medication combined with alcohol could impair a person's ability to drive.

Four other motor vehicles charges related to the crash, including leaving the scene of an accident, were dropped by the prosecutor.

In announcing his verdict, the judge rejected the "Ambien Defense" the nun's lawyers had presented.  

Whitcraft found that there is no basis for such a defense under New Jersey law, saying the issue of intent is not a basis for a challenge to a driving while intoxicated charge in New Jersey. 

The judge also questioned the nun's credibility, including details of her actions the night before the arrest, and he even questioned if she indeed had taken the sleeping pill.

Miller, who was quiet during the 45 minutes it took the judge to review the evidence and explain his decision said only one word during the proceeding.

She softly answered, "No," when asked if she wanted to ask any questions of the judge.

Miller let out a long deep sigh when she first entered the courtroom and took a seat. She nervously twisted her nun's ring as she waited for the hearing to begin.

Her lawyer, Jeffrey M. Lindy, arranged for Miller and her supporters, primarily nuns, to exit the courthouse from the rear, avoiding most reporters and photographers.

She made no comment between the courthouse and the awaiting car, where she was a passenger.

Lindy, who had gone to the front of the courthouse to address reporters, said Whitcraft's comments about Miller's credibility caused the nun more pain than his verdict, leaving her upset "and in tears."

Lindy noted in court that the judge had "just called my client a liar," when asked if he had anything he wanted to tell the judge.

The lawyer was surprised by the judge's comments, calling Miller "a truth-teller" in her religious vocation. He also said the judge's comments would make successfully appealing the case more difficult.

Lindy issued a statement about the judge's ruling later Wednesday and was undecided if an appeal would be filed.

“I understand the Judge’s ruling that New Jersey doesn’t recognize the defense of pathological intoxication in DWI matters. If we appeal, perhaps this is the case where we can make some new law on that issue.," Lindy said. "But his ruling that he has credibility concerns about Sister Kim ... is really remarkable.”

One issue that remains unresolved is how the suspension will be handled, Lindy said. Under New Jersey law, drunk driving is not a criminal offense, though it is a criminal offense under Pennsylvania law.

The lawyer said because of that, she did not surrender her Pennsylvania driver's license to the New Jersey court. That means she can still drive elsewhere, including Pennsylvania, though not in New Jersey, Lindy said.

It also means the clock has not begun on her 90-day suspension in New Jersey, he added. 

Miller is anxious to get the issue behind her, Lindy said, and he hopes to clarify how that can be done after talking to motor vehicle authorities in both states.

In the courtroom Wednesday morning, Whitcraft spent more than a half an hour summarizing the case before spending another 15 minutes reviewing the law.

At a five-hour hearing last week, Miller claimed she had no recollection of leaving her North Philadelphia convent, driving across the bridge to New Jersey, and then crashing into the glass storefront of a Turnersville auto repair business.

Miller testified at that hearing that she had washed down an Ambien sleeping pill with a glass of wine. She also admitted she had two small glasses of wine earlier on the evening of the crash during a book fair in Haverford.

A half-empty bottle of wine was found in the passenger compartment of the vehicle she was driving.

The judge questioned her account, including if she had indeed ever driven back to her convent and changed into sleepwear, or if she had even taken an Ambien just before turning in. 

Miller initially had denied drinking at all despite appearing impaired and smelling of alcohol police said. The judge also noted she did not mention Ambien to responding officers.

"I woke up, and I was in my habit and handcuffs," the 41-year-old Miller testified in court last week.

Miller had told the court that she has long suffered from sleepwalking and a dissociative disorder. She said she took Ambien in order to deal with chronic arthritis pain.

But the judge pointed out her prescription was about a year old and Miller had admitted to not taking a sleep pill for about eight months before the incident.

Miller was placed on leave from her job as a librarian and teacher at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's Little Flower High School. There is an online petition seeking her return.

Kenneth Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying Miller would remain suspended pending further review by Office of Catholic Education and the nuns in Miller's religious congregation

"No change has yet been made to her status," Gavin said. She remains on administration leave from her teaching duties. This information has been shared with the Little Flower community. When a determination is made regarding whether or not she can resume her duties at school, that information will also be shared with school families."

Miller's blood alcohol level of 0.16 percent was twice the legal limit and she and failed several field sobriety tests. But the results of the BAC test were tossed out on a technicality.

The nun ran a popular writing program at Little Flower. She had attended a meeting in Haverford to make plans for an event related to the program on the evening before her arrest.