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PA Superior Court Continues to Undermine US Supreme Court's Birchfield Ruling

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Moser. In Moser, the Superior Court concluded that police lawfully obtained the defendant’s blood sample without a search warrant because the defendant consented to the blood draw before police read him defective and coercive O’Connell warnings. Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court’s order suppressing the results of the blood test. 

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Moser

Moser was charged with Homicide by vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance (Homicide by DUI), three counts of DUI, homicide by vehicle, and related traffic offenses. Moser filed a motion to suppress, arguing that police coerced him into submitting to warrantless blood testing by reading him defective O’Connell warnings which informed him that if he refused the blood testing, he would be subjected to stricter criminal penalties. The United States Supreme Court has previously held in Birchfield v. North Dakota that a state cannot impose criminal penalties on a defendant who refuses to submit to a warrantless blood draw, and Pennsylvania courts have suppressed blood testing in which defendants were told they would face criminal penalties if they refused prior to the testing. 

The trial court granted the motion to suppress. It found that the behavior of the police was unlawfully coercive and violated Moser’s rights because the police told him that he would face criminal penalties if he refused the testing. By granting the motion to suppress, the court ordered that the prosecution could not use the results of the blood testing at the homicide trial. 

The Commonwealth appealed to the Superior Court. On appeal, the Commonwealth argued that Moser had actually agreed to the blood testing while in the back of the police car on the way to the hospital. The police who were investigating the case did not read him the defective warnings until he arrived at the hospital. Therefore, the prosecution argued that he had already agreed to the blood draw prior to hearing anything coercive. Because the warnings were not provided until later, they could not have coerced him into giving up his right to insist on a search warrant prior to a blood test. 

The Superior Court agreed. It found that although the warnings were improper and could have been coercive, the warnings did not coerce the defendant in this case because they were not given until after he had already consented to the blood draw in the back of the police car. Therefore, the court reversed the decision of the trial court and ordered that the blood test results may be introduced at trial going forward.

This case continues a recent trend in the Sueprior Court of rejecting these Birchfield challenges and allowing the Commonwealth to use evidence even where the police gave improper warnings. A number of Birchfield cases are still on appeal, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has granted review in at least one of them. Therefore, although this is a significant set back for the defendant in this case, it is possible that the rules surrounding blood testing in DUI cases will continue to change and that the Superior Court could be overturned. For the time being, the Superior Court continues to regularly undermine the basic holding of Birchfield that states may not impose criminal penalties on a defendant for refusing blood testing when police have not obtained a search warrant. Obviously, the constitution requires search warrants, but the appellate courts continue to allow police to ignore this requirement and forgives their basic refusal to set up electronic or telephonic warrant application systems for DUI cases. 

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Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges or may be under investigation, we can help. We are experienced and understanding Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers who will fight for you. We have successfully defended thousands of clients in trial courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as on appeal and in Post-Conviction Relief Act Petitions. We offer a complimentary 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an award-winning defense attorney today. 

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PA Superior Court Finds Police-Created Exigent Circumstances Support Warrantless Blood Draw in Homicide by DUI Case

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Trahey. In Trahey, the Court held that because Philadelphia Police were understaffed, failed to respond to the incident in a timely manner, and did not have procedures in place for quickly obtaining a warrant by electronic means, officers were justified in conducting a warrantless blood draw of a suspect who had been arrested on suspicion of Homicide by DUI. The opinion is an absurdity which suggests that because the Philadelphia Police have not taken adequate steps to investigate cases and create procedures for quickly obtaining search warrants even in potential homicide cases, they can ignore the United States Supreme Court's holding in Birchfield that drawing a suspect's blood in a DUI case requires voluntary, uncoerced consent or a search warrant. 

Commonwealth v. Trahey

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

On September 4, 2015, which was Labor Day weekend, 911 dispatchers received a report that a car had struck a cyclist on the 4900 block of Wynnewood Avenue in Philadelphia. Despite the call about someone being struck, police were not dispatched to the scene until approximately 45 minutes after receiving the call. Officers testified that this was “due to the lower priority of auto accidents on the hierarchy of circumstances in which Philadelphia Police Officers are dispatched to emergency situations.” The 911 call did not mention that this may be a DUI-related crash or that someone had been seriously injured. 

Upon arrival, police officers observed a smashed bicycle and a pickup truck that was partially on the sidewalk. The police testified that the truck’s hood and grill were damaged, its windshield was shattered, and there was blood on the street. The officers spoke to a group of bystanders who informed them that the defendant had been driving the truck and the cyclist, who he had hit, had been transported to the hospital. Unfortunately, the cyclist died as a result of this incident.

The defendant told one of the officers that he was the driver of the truck that struck the cyclist. While speaking with the defendant, the officer noticed that the defendant had a strong odor of alcohol on his person, his speech was slow and slurred, his eyes were glassy, and he had an unsteady gait. Based on these observations, the officer believed that the defendant was under the influence of alcohol. The officer arrested the defendant for DUI. It does not appear that any field sobriety tests were performed despite the fact that the officers were on the scene for approximately 45 minutes before they arrested the defendant. They then left the scene to transport the defendant to police headquarters for booking and presumably for a blood test.            

While en route to police headquarters, the officers were called back to the scene by the Accident Investigation District (AID). AID is a unit that investigates car accidents and DUI cases. One of the AID officers examined the defendant and also noticed signs of intoxication. The AID officer learned that nearly ninety minutes had already passed since the crash. This is significant because police have two hours to do a blood test or a breathalyzer after they arrest someone on suspicion of DUI. After two hours, the results of the test become significantly less accurate. The rules therefore suggest that a court should not allow prosecutors to use the results of an untimely test. Consequently, one of the AID officers sent the defendant back to the police headquarters for a blood test and/or breathalyzer.

When the defendant arrived at police headquarters, he gave verbal consent to the blood testing, and he signed a 75-439 form which is the written version of these warnings. However, on this form, he did not check the box that consented to blood testing. After all of this, the defendant had blood taken from his arm. It was two hours and five minutes after the accident occurred. The defendant was subsequently charged with homicide by vehicle, homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, involuntary manslaughter, and DUI. He then filed a pre-trial suppression motion in which he argued that the police subjected him to an unlawful search by taking his blood without a search warrant. 

The Motion to Suppress 

Several police officers testified at the hearing. They generally testified that officers would not have had sufficient time to seek a warrant for the chemical testing of the defendant’s blood within two hours of the accident. They also testified that a significant amount of time had elapsed before the officers were able to respond to the accident scene and that they did not know this was potentially a DUI related accident. It is important to remember that the 911 call did mention that someone had been struck by an automobile, yet apparently this had no effect on the promptness of the Philadelphia police’s response time to the scene of the accident.

The officers provided a number of different reasons for why they could not get a warrant within the two-hour time frame. This included: it would have taken too long to type up the warrant, drive from the accident to the AID headquarters, communicate with the on-call prosecutor for approval of the affidavit, arrange to meet with an available commissioner to consider the warrant application, travel to arraignment court, wait for a commissioner, have the commissioner review the application, and then return to the police headquarters with the approved request. The officer estimated that the entire process could take anywhere from seventy minutes to three hours.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress.  The trial court held that the defendant’s oral consent was invalid because of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota (which holds that the government cannot subject you to a penalty by refusing to consent to blood testing). However, the suppression court did not address the exigent circumstances argument posed by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth then filed a timely interlocutory appeal.

What is the “Exigent Circumstances” Exception to the Warrant Requirement?

Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protect individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. Usually, this means that if the government wants to go into your home or take something from your body (i.e. blood) the government needs a warrant to do so. However, throughout the years, both federal and Pennsylvania case law has evolved to include an “exigent circumstances” exception. Typically, this is limited to circumstances where there is a reasonable belief that evidence will be destroyed unless the police take prompt action. Courts use a totality of the circumstances approach to analyze the facts of a particular case in determining whether there were exigent circumstances.     

To give an example of exigent circumstances, let’s say a police officer sees someone engage in a hand-to-hand exchange of drugs for money. The police then approach the defendant, and he runs into a house. The police officer follows him into this house and seizes drugs from his person. At a motion to suppress, the Commonwealth may reasonably be able to argue that there were exigent circumstances because if the police officer had not gone into the house, the defendant would have had time to flush the drugs down the toilet or find some other way to destroy them. Therefore, depending on all of the circumstances, a court could rule that the officer was not required to obtain a search warrant and deny the defendant’s motion to suppress.

The exigent circumstances exception has been applied in DUI cases, as well. This is understandable to some extent because alcohol in a person's blood dissipates relatively quickly.  However, exigent circumstances do not automatically apply in DUI cases solely from the fact that alcohol eventually dissipates. The United States Supreme Court addressed this issue in the case of Missouri v. McNeely. The Court held that the natural dissipation of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream is not a per se (automatic) exigency and held that the police are not free from the requirement of obtaining a search warrant to obtain a DUI suspect’s blood. However, McNeely also did not hold that the police must always get a warrant to take a DUI suspect’s blood. The McNeely court acknowledged that obtaining a warrant is not always practical in DUI cases. Therefore, in cases where the police do not get a warrant, courts must analyze the facts of a given case to determine whether it was objectively reasonable for the police to draw blood without a search warrant.       

The Pennsylvania Superior Court Holds That Easily Resolved Logistical Challenges Qualify as Exigent Circumstances

In Trahey, the suppression court did not address the issue of exigent circumstances.  Nonetheless, instead of remanding the case for the suppression court to consider whether there were exigent circumstances, the Superior Court improperly decided to conduct the analysis itself. Of course, it found that there were exigent circumstances in this case. What is absurd about the Superior Court’s decision is that the exigent circumstances that the Court found in favor of the Commonwealth were entirely created by the Philadelphia Police Department's poor performance in giving the call priority and failure to create electronic or telephonic procedures for obtaining a search warrant. Such procedures for quickly obtaining a search warrant in emergency situations obviously exist in countless jurisdictions both small and large throughout the country, but the Superior Court refused to suggest that a jurisdiction as large as Philadelphia should be expected to implement them. 

The Superior Court gave a slew of reasons as to why there were exigent circumstances in this case. One of the reasons was that that the officers did not arrive on scene until 45 minutes after the accident. However, this was because the emergency dispatch in Philadelphia does not prioritize car accidents for police response (apparently even when the 911 call indicates that someone has been hit). Further, when the police arrived on scene, it took an additional 45 minutes for the officers to determine that the defendant may have been under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. This determination was not because the officers had the defendant engage in any field sobriety tests. Rather, it took this long based on their observations of the defendant and conversations with him and bystanders. Additionally, the Superior Court noted that on this particular night, the Philadelphia police lacked manpower because only 5 AID officers were assigned to Philadelphia on Labor Day weekend.

As such, all of these exigent circumstances were a consequence of the failures of the Philadelphia Police to be adequately prepared. Thus, arguably, the police created the exigent circumstances in this case. Courts have held that if the police create the exigent circumstances, they are not entitled to sidestep the protections of the Pennsylvania and the United States Constitution. However, the Superior Court’s decision in Trahey does exactly that: it incentivizes the police to not be prepared so that they can later claim exigent circumstances and evade the Constitution's search warrant requirement. Trahey will likely be appealed, and hopefully an en banc panel of the Court or the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will reverse it and require law enforcement to comply with the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. 

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Philadelphia DUI Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia DUI Defense Attorneys

DUI cases can be complicated. However, there are several ways to beat them. If you are charged with DUI, you need a skilled attorney with the knowledge and expertise to fight your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully defended countless DUI cases. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today. 

PA Superior Court Finds Birchfield Not Retroactive in PCRA Litigation 

Criminal Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Criminal Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Olson, holding that the new rule relating to DUI blood testing cases announced by the United States Supreme Court in Birchfield v. North Dakota may not be raised to challenge a DUI conviction in collateral litigation. This means that defendants who have been convicted of DUI based on evidence obtained via a now-illegal warrantless, coercive blood draw may not challenge their convictions by filing a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition in Pennsylvania state court.

Commonwealth v. Olson

In Olson, the defendant pleaded guilty to one count of Driving Under the Influence in September 8, 2015. Because the defendant had numerous prior convictions for DUI, he was sentenced to 18 months to 5 years in state prison. He did not file an appeal to the Superior Court.

Instead, on August 17, 2016, he filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition challenging the legality of his sentence. The defendant argued two issues: first, that the mandatory minimum sentence that he received for his criminal conviction was rendered unconstitutional by the Birchfield decision. Second, he argued that Birchfield created a new substantive rule which courts must apply retroactively where the defendant timely files a PCRA Petition.

What is Birchfield

By way of background, Birchfield was an extremely important, recent United States Supreme Court decision in which the Court held that states may not impose criminal penalties on DUI suspects who refuse to consent to blood testing if the police have not obtained a warrant. This had the effect of radically changing Pennsylvania’s DUI laws because Pennsylvania had statutes on the books which imposed additional penalties on a DUI defendant in cases where the prosecution could prove that the defendant both was driving under the influence and that the defendant refused blood testing. Accordingly, Pennsylvania appellate courts have now found many sections of Pennsylvania’s DUI statute unconstitutional. Birchfield was decided between when the defendant in this case was sentenced and when the defendant filed the PCRA Petition, meaning the defendant sought to apply Birchfield to his case even though his case was already over by the time Birchfield was decided.

PCRA Petitions 

PCRA Petitions are initially filed in the trial court in which the defendant was convicted. If a trial court denies a PCRA Petition, the court’s decision can be appealed to the Superior Court. Here, the defendant filed his PCRA Petition in the trial court, and the trial court dismissed the petition, finding that the Petition was not timely filed and that the rule in Birchfield did not apply retroactively to cases which were no longer on direct appeal. The defendant appealed, and the Superior Court affirmed the decision of the trial court.

Is Birchfield Retroactive? 

The Superior Court found that Birchfield does not apply retroactively to closed cases. It cited previous case law for the proposition that “a new rule of law does not automatically render final, pre-existing sentences illegal.” Instead, an old rule applies in PCRA litigation, also known as collateral review, if 1) the rule is substantive or 2) the rule is a ‘watershed rule of criminal procedure’ implicating the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the criminal proceeding. Substantive rules decriminalize conduct or prohibit punishment against a class of persons. Rules that regulate only the manner of determining the defendant’s culpability are procedural.

The Court first found that the rule in Birchfield requiring a warrant before criminal penalties for refusing a blood draw could be imposed is procedural. The court reasoned that it does not alter the range of conduct or the class of persons punished by the law – DUI is still a crime, and blood tests are still permissible. Instead, it regulates only the manner of determining the degree of a defendant’s culpability.

Accordingly, as the law stands now, Birchfield challenges cannot be raised by filing a Post-Conviction Relief Act Petition. However, additional appellate litigation may take place, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court or United States Supreme Court could review this decision and reach a different conclusion. It is important to note that Birchfield continues to apply in pending DUI cases. States may not punish defendants who refuse to submit to warrantless blood tests for refusing to submit to the test.

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Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges, we can help. Our Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers and DUI defense attorneys have successfully defended thousands of cases. We offer a complimentary 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to every potential client who is facing criminal charges or who may be under investigation by law enforcement. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.  

PA Courts Adopt Public Servant Exception to Warrant Requirement

The Public Servant Exception to the Warrant Requirement

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Criminal Defense Attorney

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - Criminal Defense Attorney

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has just decided the case of Commonwealth v. Livingstone, holding that although Pennsylvania has a community caretaker and public safety exception to the warrant requirement, police officers must be able to provide specific and articulable facts for why a person may be in need of assistance prior to conducting an investigative detention. In other words, police officers may stop a person if they believe the person is in distress or that there is an emergency situation, but the police must be able to provide specific reasons for why they believe an emergency situation exists, they may not conduct a stop as a pretext to investigate criminal activity, and the stop may only as intrusive as the circumstances require. 

Commonwealth v. Livingstone

In Livingstone, a Pennsylvania State Trooper in Erie County saw the defendant’s vehicle pulled over on the shoulder of the highway. The engine was running, but the hazard lights were not activated. The Trooper activated his emergency lights, and with his passenger side window down, pulled alongside the stopped vehicle. The Trooper then began to ask the defendant some questions, and he eventually reached the conclusion that she was under the influence of a controlled substance. Accordingly, he arrested the defendant and charged her with DUI.

Motion to Suppress

The defendant subsequently filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the results of the blood test, arguing that she was stopped without reasonable suspicion or probable cause when the Trooper pulled up next to her and activated his emergency lights. The trial court denied the motion and found that after the Trooper saw the vehicle on the side of the interstate, the Trooper had a duty to determine if the defendant was in need of help. The trial court also found that the Trooper engaged only in a “mere encounter,” meaning he did not need reasonable suspicion or probable cause. With the motion to suppress denied, the court found the defendant guilty of DUI and sentenced her to a period of house arrest.

The defendant appealed. After the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review. On appeal, the Supreme Court recognized that the case presented two distinct issues: first, was the defendant seized when the Trooper pulled up next to her with his emergency lights on, and second, if the defendant was seized, was the Trooper justified in stopping her.

The Court found that the first issue was relatively simple; the defendant was seized when a marked State Police vehicle pulled up next to her, rolled the window down, and activated its overhead lights. The Court emphasized both that official driver’s license materials provided by PennDOT instruct motorists that they should not leave when a police officer activates his or her emergency lights and that Pennsylvania law makes it a felony to flee from a police officer after the officer signals for the motorist to stop. Because no reasonable person would feel free to leave when a State Police Trooper activates his or her emergency lights, the defendant was seized when the Trooper pulled up next to her and activated the lights.

Second, the Court found that the Trooper did not have the legal authority to make the stop because the Trooper lacked sufficient information to determine that the defendant was in need of assistance. Once a court determines that police have seized someone for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, the prosecution generally must show that the police had either reasonable suspicion or probable cause depending on how extensive the stop was. In order to support a Terry stop (“an investigate detention”), the police must have reasonable suspicion. In order to arrest someone, the police must have probable cause to make an arrest.

Here, the Trooper did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause at the time of the stop because he had no indication that criminal activity was afoot or that a crime had occurred solely from the fact that the defendant had pulled over. However, the Court recognized a “community caretaking doctrine” or public safety exception. The community caretaking doctrine applies in three circumstances. First, there is an emergency aid exception. Second, there is an automobile impoundment/inventory exception, and third, there is a public safety exception. For any of these exceptions to apply, the officer must be acting out of a motivation to render aid or assistance rather than an attempt to investigate criminal activity.

The Public Safety Exception (Public Servant Exception)

Prior to this case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had never specifically addressed the public safety exception. The Court recognized that the police do not exist solely to investigate and prevent criminal activity. Instead, they are also charged with ensuring the safety and welfare of the Commonwealth’s citizens. At the same time, the Fourth Amendment requires that police officers not conduct warrantless searches without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Therefore, the Court sought to employ a test for when police can conduct a seizure of this nature that would both allow the police to help members of the public and protect the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

Can The Police Conduct A Stop If They Think Someone Needs Help? 

The Court held that in order for the public servant exception (public safety exception) to apply, the Commonwealth must be able to satisfy three requirements. First, police officers must be able to point to specific, objective, and articulable facts that would suggest to an experienced officer that a citizen is in need of assistance. Further, the Court found that the Trooper in this case could not do so because there were too many reasons why the defendant could have pulled over on the side of the road. The Court noted that the defendant could have needed to look at a map, answer or make a telephone call, send a text message, change an address in a navigation system, clean up a spill, or retrieve something from her purse or the glove compartment. Pulling over to the side of the road to do these types of things should be encouraged.

Second, in order for the exception to apply, the police caretaking action must be independent from the detection, investigation, and acquisition of criminal evidence. This does not mean that an officer must completely ignore the nature of his or her role in law enforcement, but it does mean that the courts must meticulously consider the facts and carefully apply the exception in a manner that mitigates the risk of abuse and ensures that police do not use the exception as a pretext for obtaining evidence without a warrant.

Third, the level of the intrusion must be commensurate with the perceived need for assistance. This requires the suppression court to evaluate the circumstances surrounding the seizure, including but not necessarily limited to, the degree of authority or force displayed, the lengthy of the seizure, and the availability of alternative means of assistance.

Here, the Court found that the Trooper did not have any reason to believe that the defendant needed assistance. He had not received a report that a motorist needed help, he did not observe anything that indicated there was a problem with her vehicle, the weather was fine, and the defendant did not have her hazard lights on. Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the trial court and ordered that the blood test and other evidence seized as a result of the illegal stop be suppressed.

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Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges or are interested in appealing a conviction, we can help. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully resolved countless cases at trial and on appeal. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.