Articles Posted in Birchfield

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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.

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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.

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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.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.

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The Supreme Court’s holding in Birchfield v. North Dakota, continues to affect how Pennsylvania DUI cases are prosecuted. In Birchfield, the Supreme Court held that police officers could not subject DUI suspects to warrantless blood tests or impose increased criminal penalties for refusing a blood test. Before the Birchfield ruling, Pennsylvania DUI suspects were advised that they would face enhanced criminal penalties if they refused blood tests. Those warnings, which were known as the DL-26 form, were modified post-Birchfield to remove language warning of increased criminal penalties. The new form, DL-26B, however, warns of the possibility of increased civil penalties for failing to submit to a blood test, which has led to confusion among DUI suspects as to what penalties may be imposed for failing to submit to the test.

Recently, in Commonwealth v. Miller, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that police officers do not have an affirmative duty to advise a DUI suspect they will not face enhanced criminal charges if they refuse a blood test. As such, if a DUI suspect voluntarily consents to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) test, the results of the test are admissible, regardless of the suspect’s belief that he will face more severe penalties if he refuses to submit to the test.

In Miller, the suspect was arrested under the suspicion of DUI and then read the revised DL-26B form, which no longer includes warnings of increased criminal penalties for failing to submit to a blood test. The suspect, who had previously been arrested for DUI and read the prior DL-26 form, believed he would received criminal penalties for failing to submit to the blood test and therefore consented to the test. At his trial, the suspect filed a motion to suppress evidence of his blood alcohol concentration test results, arguing his consent was invalid because, based on his prior experience, he believed he would face criminal penalties if he did not submit to the test. The trial court granted the suspect’s motion and the Commonwealth appealed. On appeal, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that the suspect’s subjective belief did not provide grounds for the suppression of the blood alcohol concentration test results.

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In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued Birchfield v. North Dakota, which held that a DUI suspect may not be informed they are subject to increased punishment in the event of refusing a blood test. A Pennsylvania DUI defendant who was arrested after Birchfield, but before the General Assembly’s July 2017 amendment of the Criminal Code, appealed her license suspension for refusing to submit to chemical testing pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Implied Consent Law.

In June 2016, PennDOT created an amended DL 26B form in response to Birchfield. On July 20, 2017, the Pennsylvania governor approved 2017 Act 30, which amended Section 1547(b)(2) to remove language that requires an officer to give admonitions relating to enhanced criminal penalties for refusing a blood test.

Upon the defendant’s arrival at the central booking center, the officer requested that she submit to a chemical test of her blood and read her the new DL-26B form, thereby warning her that the Department would administratively suspend her driver’s license for at least 12 months for refusing to submit to a blood test. He did not advise her, however, that she would be subject to enhanced criminal penalties upon refusal. The defendant refused, and the Department issued the notice of suspension at issue. The defendant appealed to the trial court, which held a hearing, rejected the defendant’s argument, and upheld the suspension. Her timely appeal followed.

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On June 23, 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued North Dakota v. Birchfield, which held that warrantless blood tests cannot be justified under the search incident to arrest rationale, and, as a result, a driver may not be informed they are subject to increased punishment in the event of refusal. This watershed decision meaningfully affects Pennsylvania DUI prosecutions and others throughout the country.

A defendant appealed from his DUI conviction, asserting that the trial court erred in denying his post-sentence motion to withdraw his guilty plea to enable him to take advantage of Birchfield. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed.

In February 2016, a Pennsylvania state trooper suspected the defendant of driving under the influence during a routine traffic stop. The defendant consented to a blood draw, and he was subsequently charged with various DUI-related offenses. In June 2016, he entered into a negotiated guilty plea and was sentenced to six months’ intermediate punishment. He did not file a motion seeking to suppress his blood test results. Birchfield came out two days after the defendant’s sentence.

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The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appealed from the order granting Colby Michael Snyder’s motion to suppress in a Pennsylvania DUI case. Last month, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the lower court’s decision.

In June 2016, a Pennsylvania State Trooper noticed Appellee speeding, weaving, and changing lanes without signaling on Interstate 81. The trooper initiated a traffic stop and noticed alcohol emanating from Appellee. When Appellee exited the vehicle, he was unsteady and disoriented. Appellee failed multiple field sobriety tests. A breathalyzer test revealed a BAC of .121.

Appellee was taken to the station where he was read the then-current DL-26 warnings. Those warnings informed Appellee that he would be subjected to increased criminal penalties if he refused to submit to a blood draw. Appellee submitted to a blood draw, which revealed a BAC of .213.

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Pennsylvania DUI law can often be nuanced and complex, as a recent case illustrates. In December 2014, K.W. was involved in an accident in Cameron County in which her car struck two pedestrians. One of the pedestrians sustained serious injuries, and the other was pronounced dead at the scene. When police arrived, Trooper J.R. asked K.W. to perform a field sobriety test, which she performed poorly. K.W. then submitted to a portable breath test, after which she was placed under arrest on suspicion of DUI.

The police transported K.W. to the hospital for a blood test. There, Trooper J.R. read K.W. the O’Connell and implied consent warnings, as contained on the Pennsylvania State Police DL-26 form, after which K.W. consented to a BAC test. K.W. was subsequently charged with the following: homicide by vehicle while DUI; aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI; DUI of alcohol or controlled substance; DUI of alcohol or controlled substance with a BAC of .178%; DUI of alcohol or controlled substance; and careless driving.

Prior to trial, K.W. filed a motion to suppress the results of the BAC test based on Birchfield v. North Dakota. In August 2016, following a suppression hearing, the suppression court granted K.W.’s motion, and suppressed all evidence from the BAC test. The Commonwealth appealed, raising the following issue for review: “Did the trial court err in suppressing the results of the testing of [K.W.’s] blood, after a fatal, suspected DUI motor vehicle accident, on the basis of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota?