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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Remands DUI Conviction in Light of Birchfield

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently reversed a driver’s DUI conviction and remanded to the trial court to determine whether his consent to a blood test was validly obtained in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota.

At around 3 AM in September 2015, an officer was on routine patrol in Allegheny County. He was driving on State Route 88 when he noticed the driver’s vehicle with both passenger side tires on the shoulder of the roadway with tires over the fog line. The vehicle appeared to be traveling over the speed limit, so the officer turned around in order to follow the driver and determine his speed. The driver made a left turn on Hamilton Road and traveled up Hamilton by driving up the middle of the road, his vehicle in both lanes of travel. There were no obstructions or road conditions that would cause the driver to take up both lanes of travel. The officer then activated his lights and conducted a traffic stop.

He approached the driver’s vehicle and detected a strong odor of alcohol. He asked the driver if he had been drinking alcohol, which the driver denied. After the driver’s performance on field sobriety tests, the officer came to the opinion that he was under the influence of alcohol and incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle.

The officer testified that, as he was arresting the driver, he requested that he submit to a blood draw, and he said: “if you refuse to submit to that blood draw, your license will be suspended and you will suffer enhanced penalties through PennDOT.” The driver was transported to St. Clair Hospital. While his blood was being drawn, he told the officer, “I [expletive] up.” His blood-alcohol content was determined to be .205%.

In January 2016, the driver filed an omnibus pre-trial motion, which included a motion to suppress the results from the blood test, arguing that his consent was involuntary because it was given only after he was informed he would face enhanced penalties if he refused to consent to the blood test. In the next month, the trial court held a hearing on his pre-trial motion and conducted a non-jury trial. The court denied his pre-trial motion and found him guilty of DUI-highest rate, DUI-general impairment, and failing to drive on the right side of the roadway. That same day, the trial court sentenced him to three days’ incarceration and six months’ probation.

On appeal, the driver argued the trial court erred in failing to suppress evidence of his blood alcohol content when the warning provided prior to his consent came after he was informed that if he refused, he would face enhanced penalties. He maintained that his consent was not constitutionally obtained because he was informed that if he refused the blood test, he would face “enhanced penalties.” He contended that, although the officer stated the “enhanced penalties” were through PennDOT, the driver, who was intoxicated and being arrested at the time, likely did not differentiate between enhanced criminal penalties and enhanced penalties through PennDOT.

In Birchfield, the U.S. Supreme Court established that since “the taking of a blood sample” is a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, absent an applicable exception, police officers may not compel the taking of a blood sample of a defendant without a search warrant. The Court next held that, although implied-consent laws that impose civil penalties and evidentiary consequences for refusing to consent are constitutional, implied-consent laws that “impose criminal penalties” for refusing to consent to a blood test are unconstitutional because “motorists cannot be deemed to have consented to submit to a blood test on pain of committing a criminal offense.”

Following Birchfield, the Pennsylvania appeals court explained, the police may validly obtain consent based on a warning of a license-suspension penalty, since the Supreme Court made clear that such a penalty may be constitutionally imposed. In contrast, when consent is obtained following a warning that refusal will subject a motorist to “the pain of committing a criminal offense,” a penalty that in fact may not be imposed, that consent may be rendered involuntary.

Interpreting Birchfield, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held, “In determining the validity of a given consent, the Commonwealth bears the burden of establishing that a consent is the product of an essentially free and unconstrained choice—not the result of duress or coercion, express or implied, or a will overborne—under the totality of the circumstances.”

In this case, the appeals court held, a crucial component of the “totality of the circumstances” surrounding the driver’s consent was the warning given by the officer concerning the consequences of refusal. The officer did not expressly state that the driver would face enhanced criminal penalties if he refused consent. Instead, he referenced “enhanced penalties through PennDOT.” The record did not reveal what those enhanced penalties might be, beyond license suspension. Thus, the court reversed and remanded for re-evaluation of consent based on the totality of the circumstances.

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 will 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 Defendant’s DUI Conviction, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, March 15, 2017.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Rejects DUI Appellant’s Argument That He Was Merely Sleeping in Car, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, February 16, 2017.

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Vacates Illegally Enhanced DUI Sentence, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, February 3, 2017.