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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