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Pennsylvania Superior Court Holds Blood Draw Evidence Admissible Under Good-Faith Exception

Pennsylvania DUI law can often be nuanced and complex, as a recent case illustrates. In December 2014, K.W. was involved in an accident in Cameron County in which her car struck two pedestrians. One of the pedestrians sustained serious injuries, and the other was pronounced dead at the scene. When police arrived, Trooper J.R. asked K.W. to perform a field sobriety test, which she performed poorly. K.W. then submitted to a portable breath test, after which she was placed under arrest on suspicion of DUI.

The police transported K.W. to the hospital for a blood test. There, Trooper J.R. read K.W. the O’Connell and implied consent warnings, as contained on the Pennsylvania State Police DL-26 form, after which K.W. consented to a BAC test. K.W. was subsequently charged with the following: homicide by vehicle while DUI; aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI; DUI of alcohol or controlled substance; DUI of alcohol or controlled substance with a BAC of .178%; DUI of alcohol or controlled substance; and careless driving.

Prior to trial, K.W. filed a motion to suppress the results of the BAC test based on Birchfield v. North Dakota. In August 2016, following a suppression hearing, the suppression court granted K.W.’s motion, and suppressed all evidence from the BAC test. The Commonwealth appealed, raising the following issue for review: “Did the trial court err in suppressing the results of the testing of [K.W.’s] blood, after a fatal, suspected DUI motor vehicle accident, on the basis of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota?

In Birchfield, the United States Supreme Court held that, because taking a blood sample is a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, police officers may not compel a blood sample without a search warrant absent a valid exception. The Birchfield court also considered whether implied-consent laws, which require cooperation with blood-alcohol testing as a condition of driving on state roads, could provide an exception to the warrant requirement consistent with the federal constitution. The Birchfield court 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.

When K.W. was arrested and gave consent to the blood draw, the appeals court explained, warnings regarding increased criminal penalties for refusing a blood draw (included in the DL-26 form) were legally correct. However, while K.W.’s case was pending, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Birchfield, wherein the Court considered whether a blood draw was subject to one of the limited exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

Therefore, in the wake of Birchfield, the DL-26 form warnings read to K.W. were partially incorrect, insofar as they advised her that she faced additional charges and/or enhanced penalties if she refused the blood draw. Notwithstanding the issuance of Birchfield, the Commonwealth maintains that the results of K.W.’s blood test withstood suppression since the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied in this case.

The Commonwealth contended that, because Birchfield was not decided until June 23, 2016, the warnings in the DL-26 form were valid at the time Trooper J.R. provided them to K.W. on December 21, 2014. The Commonwealth pointed out that the United States Supreme Court has recognized a “good faith exception” to the general rule of exclusion of the fruits of illegal police conduct, established in criminal cases as a remedy for searches and seizures deemed illegal under the Fourth Amendment, and asserted that the court should recognize an exception to the exclusionary rule in this case.

Under the good-faith exception, when the police act with an objectively reasonable good-faith belief that their conduct is lawful, or when their conduct involves only simple, isolated negligence, the deterrence rationale loses much of its force, and exclusion is not appropriate. The good-faith exception distinguishes the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution from its Pennsylvania counterpart since “it is settled that under Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, a good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule does not exist.

Here, as the Commonwealth noted, K.W. sought suppression solely on the basis of Birchfield, and did not seek suppression pursuant to Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Moreover, K.W.’s counsel never mentioned the Pennsylvania Constitution at the suppression hearing. When a defendant moves to suppress evidence only under the federal constitution, he or she waives any argument that the evidence should be suppressed under the Pennsylvania Constitution. Thus, because K.W. failed to raise any argument before the court that suppression was required under the Pennsylvania Constitution, the appeals court found she waived the argument on appeal.

Having determined that K.W. waived her argument that suppression was required under Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the court turned to whether the blood draw evidence was admissible under the good-faith exception incorporated under the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule. At the time of K.W.’s arrest, the court explained, police were required to read K.W. the warnings contained in the DL-26 form, which this Court and our Supreme Court had consistently upheld as constitutional. Police officers in Pennsylvania had no reason to believe that the Supreme Court of the United States would render the statute at issue unconstitutional in Birchfield.

As such, the blood draw evidence was admissible under the good-faith exception to the Fourth Amendment, the only ground raised for suppression by K.W. Accordingly, the court concluded that the suppression court erred by granting K.W.’s suppression motion. The court therefore reversed the suppression court’s order, and remanded for further proceedings.

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:
Appeals Court Holds Evidence Sufficient to Support Pennsylvania DUI Conviction, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, October 15, 2017

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

Pennsylvania Superior Court Denies DUI Defendant Post-Conviction Relief, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, September 15, 2017