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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Officer Had Reasonable Suspicion to Pull Over Separate Car Linked to DUI Crash

A driver appealed from the August 26, 2016 judgment of sentence entered in the Mercer County Court of Common Pleas following his bench trial conviction for driving under the influence — highest rate of alcohol. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed.

In disposing of the driver’s motion to suppress, the trial court set forth the following facts. On October 3, 2015, at around 4:00 a.m., an officer received a dispatch of a possible accident in Jackson Township. He arrived, and a second marked cruiser arrived on the scene. Upon arrival, the troopers discovered a Jeep Grand Cherokee that had gone off the road and had skidded into a small wooded area.

The troopers approached the vehicle and found no one in the Jeep or in the immediate area. The officer ran the Jeep’s registration plate, and it came back as the driver’s vehicle.

While awaiting a tow truck, the officer saw in his rearview mirror a vehicle approach. As the car passed his position, he observed the car’s registration plate. The registration came back to a last name that was spelled the same way as the last name of the owner of the crashed vehicle. It was the officer’s impression that the second vehicle had pulled up possibly to pick up the operator of the first vehicle.

Once the officer discovered the name of the registered owner of the vehicle, he effectuated a stop of that vehicle. He observed a female driving the vehicle and an individual in the front passenger seat, whom he identified as the driver based upon the driver’s license picture obtained from running the crashed vehicle’s plates.

The officer believed he had a reasonable suspicion to stop the second car, given its proximity to the accident scene, the fact that the car had stopped on the roadway for 10 to 15 seconds, and the fact that the registered owner’s last name was the same last name as that of the driver.

The officer detected an odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle and asked the driver to exit. The driver lost his balance on the roadway and smelled of alcohol, so the officer effectuated a field sobriety test, which the driver failed.

The officer arrested the driver for DUI. He eventually admitted to being the operator of the vehicle. He said he swerved to miss a deer. He was transported to Grove City Hospital, where a lab technician determined his blood alcohol content was .244%.

On March 23, 2016, the driver filed an omnibus pretrial motion that challenged the constitutionality of the stop and search conducted by the officer and requested the suppression of all of the evidence obtained after the traffic stop. The trial court denied the motion, and the driver was convicted following a bench trial.

The driver thereafter filed a motion in arrest of judgment based on the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota. He claimed that since the Court held that a warrant is required to obtain a blood sample in a DUI prosecution, and his blood sample was obtained without a warrant, no charges remained viable against him, and judgment should be arrested. The court denied the motion.

On appeal, he raised two issues:  (1) whether the traffic stop and seizure of the second vehicle based upon “coincidence” was constitutionally justified; and (2) whether the sentencing court erred in refusing to arrest judgment of the BAC count pursuant to Birchfield.

Regarding (1), the Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded that the officer had a reasonable suspicion to stop the second car. Shortly before the stop, and three to four minutes after the radio report of an accident, he had arrived on the scene to find a vehicle, registered to the driver, crashed in the woods with its airbags deployed. No driver was in sight. The vehicle’s windows, while cracked, were intact, so the officer concluded that no one had been ejected from the vehicle; accordingly, he instructed other officers to begin canvassing the area.

While waiting for a tow truck to arrive, he saw a vehicle approach the accident scene, stop for 10 to 15 seconds in the roadway, and continue up the road. At the time, shortly after 4 a.m., there was no other traffic on the road. When the car passed by the officer, he could not see inside but ran its license plate and discovered that it was owned by someone who lived on Latonka Drive in Mercer. The vehicle was headed in the direction of Lake Latonka. Based on that information, the officer reasonably suspected that the vehicle might have stopped to pick up the operator of the wrecked vehicle.

Under the circumstances, the appeals court explained, it was reasonable for him to stop the car and briefly detain its occupants in order to determine whether the operator of the crashed vehicle, who had thus far failed to report the accident to police, was now in the second vehicle. The fact that the second vehicle (1) stopped on the roadway near the accident, shortly after it occurred (at roughly 4 a.m.) and (2) was registered to a person with the same name who resided not far from the driver of the crashed car was sufficient to justify the stop.

Next, the court analyzed the validity of the consent to the blood draw under Birchfield. The driver argued that since Birchfield requires a warrant for a blood draw, and no warrant was obtained in this case, the results of that blood draw must be suppressed. Birchfield held, however, that even without a warrant, the results of a blood draw may be admissible if the defendant gave valid consent. Whether consent is valid under Birchfield depends on what the consenter was told about the consequences of refusal. Since the driver did not raise his claim before trial, the record did not contain sufficient information from which to determine whether his consent was valid. As a result, although the court was sympathetic to his position, it could not grant him the relief he requested. The driver’s claim would be best addressed under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), when an appropriate record can be developed.

The court therefore affirmed the sentence.

Hiring the right attorney can make all of the difference in the world, even if your case seems straightforward or you have no criminal record.  If you find yourself arrested for a DUI, make sure you have a capable attorney on your side. Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Zachary B. Cooper will be aggressive and can fight to make sure that your rights are protected so that your family and you can move on with your lives. Call (215) 542-0800 for a free consultation to discuss the legal options that may be available to you.

More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Upholds DUI-Related Drug Convictions, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, July 6, 2017.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Upholds Defendant’s Resentencing Following New DUI Conviction, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, May 9, 2017.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Rejects Constitutionality Challenge to DUI Statute, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, May 1, 2017.