The United States Supreme Court’s ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota drastically changed the prosecution of DUI cases throughout the country. In Birchfield, the Court held that a DUI defendant cannot be subject to warrantless blood tests or face increased criminal penalties for refusing to submit to blood testing. The Birchfield verdict immediately affected the prosecution of DUI cases filed after the decision was rendered. In many states, however, it remains unclear whether Birchfield should be applied retroactively to cases that were pending when it was decided. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently granted an appeal in Commonwealth v. Hays on the sole issue of whether Birchfield should apply to Pennsylvania DUI cases that were not final when the decision was rendered.In Commonwealth v. Hays, the defendant was detained due to a traffic violation on April 11, 2014. When the police officer approached the vehicle, he observed a strong odor of alcohol coming from the defendant. As a result, he requested that the defendant perform field sobriety testing. The defendant failed the field sobriety tests and was transported to a facility for further testing. At the facility, he was read the standard warning, which stated, in part, if he refused to submit to a blood test, his license would be suspended for at least one year, and he would face other additional penalties. Following the warning, the defendant submitted to the blood test, which indicated his blood alcohol level was .192. He was charged with DUI and DUI at the highest rate of alcohol. On August 25, 2016, following a jury trial, the defendant was convicted on both charges and sentenced to five to six days in jail.
The defendant then filed a post-trial motion, arguing pursuant to the United State Supreme Court’s ruling in Birchfield, which was decided the day after his jury trial, his consent to the blood draw was not involuntary, and his conviction should be vacated. Specifically, the defendant argued that he only consented to the blood test due to the fear of increased criminal penalties, and therefore, his consent was invalid. The Commonwealth argued the defendant was not entitled to post-conviction relief because he did not preserve the issue before or at trial. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion and ordered a new trial. The Commonwealth appealed.
On appeal, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania vacated the trial court’s ruling, agreeing with the Commonwealth that since the defendant did not raise the argument that his blood testing was involuntary prior to or during his trial, he waived the right to assert it as a defense. The court noted that Pennsylvania case law clearly holds that a defendant is not entitled to the retroactive application of a new constitutional rule, unless he or she first raises the issue during trial. Since the defendant did not raise the issue of involuntary consent until after his trial, the court ruled he was not entitled to retroactive application. The defendant subsequently appealed, and the case is before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on the issue of whether Birchfield should be applied retroactively. Whatever ruling the court issues, it is clear it will have a significant impact on Pennsylvania DUI cases that were pending when Birchfield was decided, and it may be persuasive in other jurisdictions ruling on the same issue.