DUI Litigation Following Birchfield v. North Dakota
The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota created a number of issues in DUI litigation which have not yet been resolved. The Birchfield Court held that at a minimum, states may not impose criminal penalties on motorists who refuse to consent to a blood draw unless police first obtain a search warrant. As a result, much of Pennsylvania’s DUI law has been thrown into disarray, and there are a number of legal issues which still need to be resolved. These issues include the types of warnings and advice that police must provide to DUI suspects prior to requesting consent to a blood draw, whether a suspect’s refusal to consent to a blood draw without a warrant may be used against them as evidence of consciousness of guilt, and whether the police may draw blood from an unconscious Driving Under the Influence suspect.
Evidentiary Consequences of a Blood Draw Refusal
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has just declined to address one of these issues on appeal, finding that a DWI defendant who had not raised an evidentiary issue at trial could not raise it for the first time on appeal. Prior to Birchfield, it was well-accepted that the prosecution could use evidence of a motorist’s refusal to consent to a blood draw against them as evidence of consciousness of guilt. Although the refusal alone would not be enough to convict a criminal defendant, the trial judge or jury could infer from the defendant’s refusal that the defendant believed that evidence of intoxication would show up in the blood results. Thus, a refusal combined with other factors such as poor driving, an odor of alcohol or marijuana, and other evidence of that nature could combine to provide evidence of drunk driving or drugged driving beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Effect of Birchfield
Now that the United States Supreme Court (and Pennsylvania appellate courts) have held that blood draw refusals may not be used to increase the penalties or create new criminal penalties for DUI defendants, there have been a number of challenges to whether the previously mentioned evidentiary presumption of a refusal complies with the requirements of the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions. In the case of Commonwealth v. Napold, the Pennsylvania Superior Court declined to decide this issue. The Court found that the issue was waived because Napold had not raised the issue by filing a motion in limine prior to trial or objecting to the evidence at trial. Thus, the Superior Court found that Napold had waived the issue by failing to properly preserve it by asking the trial judge to rule on the issue first.
Waiver Doctrine in Pennsylvania Criminal Appeals
Napold provides an illustration of Pennsylvania’s punishing waiver doctrine. Under Pennsylvania law, if the defense fails to object to something or have an issue resolved by the trial court either prior to trial or during trial, then the issue will be forever waived on appeal regardless of how patently inadmissible the evidence may have been. For example, if the prosecution attempts to introduce inadmissible hearsay testimony and the defense fails to object, the defendant cannot then argue that he or she was prejudiced by inadmissible hearsay on appeal. This is because the issue was not raised in the trial court, so the trial judge had no opportunity to correct the error. Most other jurisdictions provide some leeway in terms of an appellate court’s ability to review obvious or clear errors, but Pennsylvania does not.
Notably, the decision in Napold finding that the issue had been waived is different from many of the other Birchfield-related cases which dealt with sentencing. The issue of an illegal sentence may always be raised on appeal regardless of whether the issue was raised in the trial court. Therefore, challenges to Pennsylvania’s statutory mandatory minimum scheme for blood draw refusals were permitted despite the failure to raise those issues in the trial court.
As illustrated by Napold, evidentiary issues must be properly preserved, and whether or not the blood draw refusal can be used as evidence against a defendant will not be resolved by the appellate courts until a later date. Napold illustrates why it is critical even for criminal defense lawyers who only handle trials to be aware of what is happening in the appellate courts so that the defense attorneys can preserve issues in case the appellate courts rule in favorable ways for the defense.
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