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.