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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Reverses Suppression of Blood Test Pursuant to Birchfield

The Commonwealth appealed from an October 17, 2016 order entered in the York County Court of Common Pleas, granting the motion to suppress filed by a defendant in a Pennsylvania DUI case. Since the trial court did not make factual findings regarding whether the defendant consented to the blood draw before or after being improperly warned about the consequences of refusal, the Pennsylvania Superior Court was unable to determine whether the court erred in finding the defendant’s consent was involuntary. The appeals court therefore reversed and remanded.

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On February 8, 2015 in New Cumberland, the defendant was traveling west on Lewisberry Road. The victims were entering Lewisberry Road from Poplar Road when they were hit by the defendant’s car. One victim, who was driving at the time of the incident, was ejected from his vehicle and later pronounced dead. The other victim sustained severe injuries, including a brain injury, a shoulder injury, and internal injuries. Immediately following the incident, she was transported to Hershey Medical Center for treatment.

An officer spoke with the defendant on the scene after he was placed in the ambulance. The defendant advised the officer he was heading home at the time of the incident after picking up food for his family. At that time, the officer smelled a strong oder of alcohol coming from the defendant’s breath, and when asked, he stated he had consumed one beer earlier that day.

The defendant was transported to Harrisburg Hospital. The officer requested the defendant to submit to a blood chemical test to determine his blood alcohol concentration (BAC). After being verbally advised of the warnings set forth on Penn-DOT’s “DL-26” form, the defendant submitted to the test. His BAC was measured at 0.250%. As a result, he was charged with two counts of DUI, in addition to third-degree murder, aggravated assault, homicide by vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, and related charges.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the blood test results. On October 17, 2016, the trial court granted his motion and suppressed the evidence. The Commonwealth appealed.

In reversing, the Commonwealth first outlined the applicable law. The United States Supreme Court has held that since “the taking of a blood sample” is a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, police officers may not compel the taking of a blood sample without a search warrant, absent an applicable exception.  After concluding that “the search incident to arrest doctrine does not justify the warrantless taking of a blood sample,” the Court considered whether implied-consent laws, which require cooperation with blood-alcohol testing as “a condition of the privilege of driving on state roads,” could provide an exception to the warrant requirement consistent with the federal Constitution. The Court held that, although implied-consent laws that impose civil penalties and evidentiary consequences for refusing to consent are constitutional, implied-consent laws that “impose criminal penalties” for refusing to consent to a blood test are unconstitutional because “motorists cannot be deemed to have consented to submit to a blood test on pain of committing a criminal offense.”

On appeal, the Commonwealth argued that the defendant’s consent was voluntary and unaffected by the Supreme Court’s recent decision. Specifically, it claimed that the defendant consented to the blood draw prior to being read the DL-26 form, which contained the warning that he would face enhanced penalties if he refused consent and later was convicted of DUI general impairment.

The appeals court agreed that if the defendant validly consented before being informed that he faced enhanced criminal penalties for a failure to do so, his consent would not be tainted by the warning, and the blood test results would be admissible. If, however, he did not consent until after the officer informed him that he would face enhanced criminal penalties if he refused to consent, the trial court did not necessarily err in granting his motion to suppress the test results.

The officer’s testimony, the appeals court found, would support a finding that the defendant consented before the DL-26 warnings or a finding that he consented after the warnings. Since the trial court did not make a factual finding addressing that issue, the court was forced to remand for a determination as to whether, under the totality of the circumstances, including the issue of timing, the defendant’s consent to the blood draw was valid.

In the alternative, the Commonwealth contended that the trial court erred in granting the defendant’s suppression motion because the defendant did not have a right to refuse a blood draw pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S. § 3755.

The Commonwealth argued that the requirements of section 3755 were all met — the defendant, as a result of a motor vehicle accident, required emergency room treatment, and the officer had probable cause to believe the defendant had been driving under the influence of alcohol. Accordingly, it contended that medical personnel at the hospital should not have refused the officer’s request that they take a blood sample from the defendant and submit the sample for testing.

The appeals court did “not necessarily disagree” with the Commonwealth’s reading of section 3755, and the fact remained that hospital personnel declined to draw the defendant’s blood pursuant to that provision. That they might or even should have done so did not provide an independent basis for denying the defendant’s motion to suppress. Accordingly, the admissibility of the test results turned wholly on the validity of the defendant’s consent.

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More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Superior Court Dismisses DUI Appeal as Untimely, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, July 19, 2017.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Upholds DUI-Related Drug Convictions, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, July 6, 2017.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Upholds Defendant’s Resentencing Following New DUI Conviction, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, May 9, 2017.