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Pennsylvania Superior Court Holds DUI Conviction Not Altered by Birchfield

A driver appealed from a June 21, 2016 judgment of sentence in a Pennsylvania DUI case, imposing 36-108 months of incarceration for homicide by vehicle, recklessly endangering another person (“REAP“), and driving under the influence of a controlled substance.

The trial court summarized the facts as follows. The driver was driving her vehicle on Kindig Road, ran a stop sign at the intersection of Kindig Road and Route 97, and pulled out into oncoming traffic on a busy road with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour. Her line of sight going in the southbound direction was completely obstructed by a building as she approached the stop sign. Rather than inch up past the stop sign to look for oncoming traffic, she never stopped and proceeded into the intersection, traveling 12 miles per hour and pulling out directly in front of the decedent’s northbound box truck. The box truck crashed into the driver’s car, crossed the double yellow line, and then crashed into a tow truck driving southbound on Route 97. The evidence also showed that the driver was familiar with her route of travel, the placement of the stop sign, and the nature of the intersecting road.

A jury found her guilty of homicide by vehicle and REAP, but not guilty of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence. The trial court found her guilty of DUI and various summary traffic offenses. In June 2016, the trial court sentenced her to 27 to 84 months of incarceration for homicide by vehicle, a consecutive nine to 24 months for REAP, and a concurrent three to six months for DUI.

On June 23, 2016, two days after the sentence, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota, in which the Court held that the criminalization of a suspect’s refusal to consent to a blood test violates the Fourth Amendment.

On appeal, the driver challenged the sufficiency of the evidence in support of her homicide by vehicle conviction and the legality of her DUI conviction in light of Birchfield.

The appeals court concluded that the record supported the jury’s finding that she acted recklessly. She acknowledged that her vehicle slowed from 25 miles per hour to 12 miles per hour and remained at 12 miles per hour for two seconds prior to the impact. Moving at 12 miles per hour past a stop sign, the court reasoned, evidences more than a simple failure to come to a complete stop.

Additionally, the appeals court considered that the stop sign preceded a busy cross street and that a building obscured the view of one lane of cross traffic. Next, it considered that the driver was not braking for the final two seconds before the impact, from which the court inferred that she did not observe that the accident was imminent. Finally, the court considered that she was familiar with the intersection and had driven through it many times. Thus, it could be inferred that she knew she was turning onto a busy street and knew that a building partially obscured the view of cross traffic on one side. In light of all of this evidence, the court concluded the Commonwealth produced sufficient evidence that the driver exhibited a conscious disregard of the substantial and unjustified risk that she would be involved in a traffic accident causing death. She crashed into a vehicle with a sufficient impact to force it into the opposing traffic lane, where it crashed into an oncoming vehicle, resulting in a fatality.

The court was willing to assume that the victim’s failure to wear a seatbelt and his open passenger door significantly increased the possibility of his tragic death in this instance. The evidence of the victim’s conduct, however, did not alter its conclusion that the driver, based on the evidence of her own conduct, exhibited a conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustified risk of a fatal accident. Her sufficiency of the evidence argument therefore failed.

The court next considered her contention that the trial court erred in declining to vacate her DUI conviction under Birchfield. She never challenged the warrantless blood draw during trial, and she did not raise any issue under Birchfield until her nunc pro tunc post-sentence motion. In Pennsylvania, the appeals court explained, 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. Since the driver failed to challenge the warrantless blood draw at any stage of the litigation prior to her nunc pro tunc post-sentence motion, the appeals court held, she was not entitled to the retroactive application of Birchfield.

For these reasons, the appeals court concluded the trial court did not err in refusing to vacate the driver’s DUI sentence. It therefore affirmed her conviction.

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

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania Upholds DUI Defendant’s License Suspension, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, September 1, 2017.

Superior Court Holds Pennsylvania DUI Appellant Received a Prompt Trial, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, August 15, 2017.