The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota, is an important ruling that permanently altered the manner in which DUI cases are prosecuted and what penalties may be imposed, throughout the country. In Pennsylvania, Birchfield continues to cause confusion, however, both among the prosecution and Pennsylvania DUI attorneys, as to what warnings are required and what evidence may be introduced against defendants. In Turner v. Commonwealth, the court clarified that a license suspension could be imposed for failure to submit to a blood test, regardless of the fact the Defendant was not given a warning regarding increased criminal penalties.
In Turner, a police officer noticed Defendant’s vehicle stopped on the side of the highway, with Defendant asleep in the driver’s seat. The officer asked Defendant to submit to field sobriety testing, which Defendant was unable to complete. Defendant admitted to drinking alcohol, but refused to submit to a breath test. He was arrested due to suspicion of DUI and transported to a facility to undergo a blood test. Defendant was warned of the consequences of refusing to undergo a blood test, but was not warned that if he refused the test he would face increased criminal penalties. Defendant refused the test and was subsequently notified his license was suspended for one year. Defendant appealed, arguing the suspension was improper because the police officer did not warn him of increased criminal penalties for refusal of the blood test. Following a hearing, Defendant’s suspension was affirmed and he appealed to the Commonwealth court, which also affirmed the suspension.
The Commonwealth court noted the same issue was ruled upon in a previous case and held it was bound by that ruling. The Defendant argued the police officer was obligated to warn of increased criminal penalties even though they were constitutionally invalid, because such warnings were required by the motor vehicle code. The court stated there was no reason for the police officer to warn of increased criminal penalties for refusing to submit to a blood test, when said penalties were no longer permitted under the Birchfield ruling, and deemed the portion of the code requiring such warnings severable from the remainder of the code. The court went on to say that the Birchfield ruling did not stop the imposition of civil penalties for refusing a blood test, and clarified that a license suspension was a civil penalty and not a criminal penalty. As such, the failure to warn of criminal penalties did not invalidate a civil penalty in the form of a license suspension.