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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Considers Whether Refusal Of Pennsylvania DUI Suspects To Submit To Blood Tests Is Proof Of Consciousness of Guilt

Courts throughout the country continue to feel the repercussions of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota, as they try to navigate the effects of the decision on current DUI case law and statutes. Birchfield held, in part, that increased criminal penalties could not be imposed on DUI suspects who refused to submit to a warrantless blood test. Currently, if a Pennsylvania DUI suspect refuses to take a blood test to determine his or her blood alcohol level, the prosecution can introduce the suspect’s denial as evidence of awareness of guilt at trial, under the implied consent law of the Pennsylvania motor vehicle code. Recently, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted an appeal on the issue of whether the terms of the implied consent law of the motor vehicle code violate the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, in light of the holding set forth in Birchfield.

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In Commonwealth v. Bell, police stopped the suspect due to his failure to have adequately illuminated headlights. When the police approached the vehicle, they noticed an odor of alcohol on the suspect’s breath, and that his eyes were bloodshot. Upon questioning, the suspect admitted he drank four beers. The suspect was then administered a field sobriety test, which he failed. Additionally, he submitted to a Breathalyzer test, which revealed a blood alcohol concentration of .127%. He was arrested for DUI and transported to a hospital for blood testing; however, he refused to submit to a blood test after he was read the chemical testing warnings.

The suspect, who was charged with a DUI, filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss the charge on the grounds he had a constitutional right to refuse to undergo the blood test. As such, he argued his refusal to submit to the test should be suppressed from evidence.  The court denied the suspect’s motion and allowed the prosecution to introduce evidence of the suspect’s refusal of the blood test, and the suspect was subsequently convicted of DUI.

The suspect filed a motion for reconsideration of his motion to dismiss, averring that the Birchfield decision barred implied consent laws from stating that motorists consent to criminal penalties for failing to submit to a blood test, and therefore, testimony regarding his refusal should have been inadmissible. The trial court granted a new trial in which the prosecution was not allowed to introduce evidence of the suspect’s refusal to submit to a blood test, and the Commonwealth appealed.  While the suspect argued he had a constitution right to refuse the test and should not be subject to stricter penalties for exercising that right, the Commonwealth argued it was not unconstitutional to introduce the suspect’s refusal to submit to the blood test as evidence of guilt at trial.

On appeal, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania found the suspect did not have a constitutional right to refuse to submit to a warrantless blood test and, therefore, the prosecution did not violate his rights by introducing this evidence at trial. The court cited to South Dakota v. Neville, a United States Supreme Court case, which held the right to refuse to submit to chemical testing was not a constitutional right but a right granted by state legislature. Therefore, allowing evidence of said refusal did not violate a suspect’s Fifth Amendment or Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania also cited to its own case, Commonwealth v. Graham, in which it similarly held the right to refuse to submit to chemical testing was not a constitutional right. Based on the Neville and Graham rulings, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held the suspect’s rights had not been violated and the prosecution was permitted to introduce evidence of his refusal at trial.

The court found the suspect’s reliance on Birchfield to be misplaced, stating that Birchfield did not hold that an individual had a constitutional right to refuse to submit to a blood test, but merely that criminal penalties could not be imposed for failure to submit to a blood test. The court noted, however, that Birchfield expressed approval of the imposition of civil and evidentiary penalties on suspects who refused to submit to a blood test.

As noted above, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently granted an appeal on the issue of the constitutionality of the evidentiary consequences of the implied consent law. The Supreme Court’s ruling is eagerly anticipated, as it will impact the prosecution of Pennsylvania DUI cases going forward and further define the effects of Birchfield.

If you have DUI charges pending against you in Pennsylvania, you should act quickly to protect your rights. A skilled DUI attorney can evaluate your cause and help you formulate your best defense to the charges against you. Zachary B. Cooper is an experienced criminal defense attorney and can assist you in defending your case. Call (215) 542-0800 for a consultation.

 More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Reverses Suppression of Blood Test Pursuant to Birchfield Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, August 1, 2017

Pennsylvania Police Adjust to New DUI Laws Mandated by Supreme Court  Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, July 15, 2016

Pennsylvania Driver Challenges Suspension of License for Refusal to Submit to Chemical Testing Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, January 26, 2014