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Pennsylvania Court Discusses Retroactivity of Birchfield v. North Dakota

Although the seminal DUI case of Birchfield v. North Dakota was decided three years ago, courts continue to analyze its impact on DUI cases throughout the country, including in Pennsylvania. For example, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently addressed the issue of whether the Birchfield ruling should be applied retroactively to vacate sentences handed down prior to the ruling. If you are a resident of Pennsylvania currently charged with a DUI offense, it is in your best interest to consult a diligent Pennsylvania DUI defense attorney to discuss your options.

The Defendant’s Conviction and Sentence

It is reported that the defendant was arrested and charged with DUI – general impairment in September 2015, which was his third DUI offense. The defendant entered an open guilty plea. He was subsequently sentenced to imprisonment for a term of 18 months to five years, which included a sentence enhancement due to his refusal to submit to a blood test to determine his BAC level. He did not file an appeal following his sentencing. In August 2016, however, following the Birchfield ruling, the defendant filed a petition for post-conviction relief, arguing that his sentence was illegal. His petition was dismissed, after which he appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. The Superior Court affirmed the lower court ruling, finding that Birchfield did not apply retroactively. The defendant then appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Birchfield’s Impact on Sentences Issued Due to a Failure to Submit to a Blood Test

Generally, a new rule of criminal procedure does not apply to convictions that were final at the time the rule was developed. New substantive rules may be applied retroactively, however, as well as rules that are deemed watershed rules of criminal procedure. In other words, these are rules that involve the essential fairness and correctness of criminal matters. In contrast to substantive rules, procedural rules are intended to improve the accuracy of a sentence or conviction by modifying the manner in which a defendant’s guilt is determined.

In the subject case, the court stated that the Birchfield ruling addressed the validity of imposing criminal penalties on a defendant for a refusal to submit to a warrantless blood test, finding such penalties to be unconstitutional. The court held that while it was undisputed that Birchfield issued a new rule of law, there was contention regarding whether the rule was procedural or substantive. Specifically, the defendant argued that the rule was substantive, since it set forth constitutional guarantees that punishments based on a failure to submit to a blood test were beyond the Commonwealth’s authority to impose.  The court disagreed, finding that the Birchfield ruling merely set forth procedural requirements, namely the issuance of a warrant that, if satisfied, would permit punishment for failing to submit to a blood test. Thus, the court found that Birchfield did not apply retroactively.

Meet with an Experienced Pennsylvania DUI Defense Attorney

If you live in Pennsylvania and are faced with DUI charges, it is wise to meet with an experienced attorney to discuss how recent changes in the law may affect your rights.  Attorney Zachary B. Cooper is a practiced Pennsylvania attorney who can advise you on your options for seeking a successful result under the facts of your case. Mr. Cooper can be reached through the online form or at (215) 542-0800 to schedule a free and confidential meeting.