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Pennsylvania Police Adjust to New DUI Laws Mandated by Supreme Court

In the wake of the Fourth of July, historically known for its high rate of drunk-driving fatalities nationally, Pennsylvania police departments have been enforcing new DUI rules mandated by the recent Supreme Court ruling in Birchfield v. North DakotaSCOTUS

Chief Gleason of the West Goshen Police Department said his officers would start implementing the new rules immediately. They will strive to perfect their procedures for investigating DUIs and making arrests. They plan to continue to pursue drunk drivers vigorously.

In Birchfield, the United States Supreme Court held in three consolidated appeals that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrest for drunk driving, but not warrantless blood tests. The cases came from Minnesota and North Dakota, states where drivers are criminally penalized for refusing to submit to a breath or blood test.

Writing for the 7-1 majority, Justice Alito reasoned that breath tests entail a minor physical intrusion to capture something regularly exposed to the public, divulge limited information, and don’t increase the embarrassment of arrest. Breath tests therefore do not implicate serious privacy interests. Blood tests, on the other hand, implicate greater privacy concerns because they are significantly more invasive. They require the skin to be pierced, and they generate a sample that can be saved and used to gather information other than the suspect’s BAC.

The Court’s ruling affects laws in 11 states that impose criminal penalties for refusing a blood test. Pennsylvania is among these states. In the Philadelphia area, the following counties have the highest rate of DUI arrests:  Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County. In 2014, Montgomery County ranked highest with 2,923 arrests. Chester County ranked second and Delaware County ranked third, with 1,983 and 1,930 arrests, respectively.

The Court’s decision in Birchfield has already affected how DUI cases are prosecuted in Philadelphia. On Wednesday, a Chester County man was charged with DUI for alcohol and drugs. The prosecution withdrew the drug charge, however, since a blood test was the only evidence. Common Pleas Judge Anthony Sarcione said that the defendant was benefited by Birchfield.

Defense attorneys in other DUI cases have started to ask Chester County judges to continue their clients’ cases to decide whether the evidence against them comes solely from a blood test or whether there is other evidence that would establish their guilt, such as an admission or officer testimony.

According to the Chester County District Attorney’s office, the decision will affect DUI cases currently in the system, which will be addressed on a case-by-case basis. When the case relies on a breath test, there is no impact. When the case relies on a blood test, the result depends on whether the police officer obtained it via consent.

There is some talk of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopting a “good faith exception” in which results are admissible when the police acted in good faith based on then-current laws.

In the past, drivers stopped by the police on suspicion of DUI have been subject to field sobriety tests. Officers may rely on their sensory impressions, such as smelling alcohol or noticing the driver’s bloodshot eyes and slurred speech. Drivers are also subject to breath tests via a portable breath tester.

Prior to Birchfield, a DUI suspect taken to the hospital for a blood test would be read an admonition indicating that if the suspect refused the blood test, he or she will face heightened criminal penalties, such as increased prison time. The Chester County district attorney stated that those rules, known formerly as the DL-26 Form, have been adjusted to remove the criminal penalty language that the Birchfield court found objectionable.

The district attorney further indicated that blood tests are important in many cases because they provide corroborating evidence. Moreover, he stated that they’re necessary to sustain charges when the driver was using drugs. Finally, blood tests are directly related to how some penalties are determined. The district attorney concluded that Birchfield will make DUI enforcement in Chester County more difficult.

Across the country, supporters of harsh drunk driving laws have expressed mixed feelings about Birchfield. General counsel for Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD) indicated that his organization was happy that the Supreme Court found that breath test refusals should no longer be decided on a case-by-case basis. He stated that MADD is upset, however, about the new requirement to obtain a search warrant for blood testing. He indicated that MADD will encourage states to expedite the process to obtain a warrant.

Police departments across the country are finding ways to adjust to Birchfield.

Hiring the right attorney can make all the difference in the world, even if your case seems straightforward or you have no criminal record.  If you find yourself arrested for a DUI, make sure you have a capable attorney on your side. Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Zachary B. Cooper will be aggressive and will fight to make sure that your rights are protected so that your family and you can move on with your lives. Call (215) 542-0800 for a free consultation to discuss the legal options that may be available to you.

More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Stop Based on Informant’s Tip Backed by Reasonable Suspicion, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, July 1, 2016.

Supreme Court Ruling to Have Major Impact on DUI Cases, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, July 5, 2015.

Nottingham Man Sentenced to Prison for Giving Beer to Amish Teens, Teen Causing DUI Crash, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, June 15, 2016.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Trial Court’s Identification of Defense Counsel as Public Defender Not Grounds for Mistrial, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, June 1, 2016.