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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds DUI Conviction Stands Following Birchfield

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.

Shortly thereafter, trial counsel filed a post-sentence motion, seeking withdrawal of the plea based on a desire to move to suppress pursuant to Birchfield. The trial court held a hearing and denied the motion. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court in denying his request caused a manifest injustice because the evidence against him was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and the Birchfield decision rendered the defendant’s plea unknowing and involuntary under the circumstances.

Post-sentence motions for withdrawal are subject to higher scrutiny, since courts strive to discourage the entry of guilty pleas as sentence-testing devices. A defendant must demonstrate that a manifest injustice would result if the court were to deny his post-sentence motion to withdraw a guilty plea. A manifest injustice may be established if the plea was not tendered knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily. In determining whether a plea is valid, the court must examine the totality of the circumstances surrounding the plea. A deficient plea does not per se establish prejudice on the order of manifest injustice.

Discretion is abused when the course pursued does not merely represent an error of judgment but makes the judgment manifestly unreasonable, when the law is not applied, or when the record shows that the action is a result of partiality, prejudice, bias, or ill will.

The court found that in the present case, the plea was entered into voluntarily and knowingly. A full and complete colloquy was conducted, which included the six mandatory inquiries set out by the Supreme Court, and this was included as a part of the record. The defendant was aware of the nature of the offense and the possible range of sentences when he entered into a negotiated plea bargain.

The court did not accept the defendant’s position that his plea retroactively became unknowing and involuntary due to Birchfield. The question was whether his plea was knowing and voluntary, an inquiry that must be examined in light of what was known and said on that day.

According to the defendant, his plea would have been voluntary if Justice Thomas’ view had prevailed, yet it somehow became involuntary when the majority ruled as it did in Birchfield. That approach, the Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded, was untenable. The argument also ignores the settled principle that a change in law applies only to cases in which the issue was properly preserved.

The defendant never challenged the warrantless blood draw during trial, and he did not raise any issue under Birchfield until the nunc pro tunc post-sentence motion. In Pennsylvania, it has long been the rule that criminal defendants are not entitled to the retroactive application of a new constitutional rule unless they raise and preserve the issue during trial.

Thus, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in declining to permit a post-sentence withdrawal of a guilty plea on the basis of a change in the law. The court affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

If you or a loved one has been arrested for a DUI in Pennsylvania, you should hire a skilled attorney as soon as practicable. Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Zachary B. Cooper has significant experience defending DUIs and can zealously argue your case. Call (215) 542-0800 for a consultation.

More Blog Posts:a

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Evidence Sufficient to Sustain Defendant’s DUI Conviction, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, February 15, 2018.

Pennsylvania Superior Court Holds Lower Court Properly Suppressed DUI Defendant’s Blood Draw Evidence, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, January 19, 2018

Pennsylvania Superior Court Denies DUI Defendant Post-Conviction Relief, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, October 18, 2017