PA Superior Court Rejects Good Faith Exception to Exclusionary Rule in Birchfield Cases

Commonwealth v. Carper

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Carper. In Carper, the Court held that prosecutors may not introduce illegally obtained blood test results in Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”) cases despite the fact that the police relied on then-settled law which permitted warrantless blood testing of DUI suspects. The Superior Court specifically rejected the application of the “good faith exception” and held that the evidence remains inadmissible despite the fact that the police officers may have acted in good faith and not realized that they were violating the law. 

Carper involved a relatively straight-forward DUI case. A Pennsylvania State Police Trooper pulled Carper over in October 2014 for an expired inspection sticker. During the ensuing stop, the Trooper began to suspect Carper of driving under the influence of a controlled substance. The Trooper arrested Carper, transported him to the hospital, and informed him that if he did not consent to a blood draw, he would face increased criminal penalties. Carper agreed to the blood draw, and the blood draw showed the presence of a controlled substance.

Motion to Suppress

Carper moved to suppress the evidence under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Notably, Carper did not move to suppress the blood results under the Pennsylvania Constitution. The trial court held a suppression hearing, and the Commonwealth introduced evidence in an attempt to show that it complied with both the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Following the hearing, the United States Supreme Court decided Birchfield v. North Dakota, and then Carper filed a post-suppression hearing brief in which he also argued that the blood results should be suppressed under the Pennsylvania Constitution. Likewise, the Commonwealth filed a brief in which it argued that the Pennsylvania Constitution did not bar the introduction of the blood results into evidence. 

Birchfield v. North Dakota made it illegal for states to impose criminal penalties on DUI suspects who refuse a warrantless blood draw. Thus, the trial court granted the Motion to suppress, agreeing with the defense that the police illegally coerced the defendant into consenting to the blood draw by informing the defendant that he would face more severe criminal penalties if he refused chemical testing. 

The Good Faith Exception to the Exclusionary Rule

The Commonwealth appealed. In its appeal, the Commonwealth argued for the application of the good faith exception to the Exclusionary Rule. In the federal system, prosecutors may still use unlawfully seized evidence if police acted in good faith when they obtained the evidence. For example, courts have found that officers acted in good faith where they arrested a defendant on what they believed to be a valid warrant despite the fact that the warrant had actually been lifted. Likewise, federal courts have held that police act in good faith when they rely on existing case law when conducting a search even if later case law subsequently changes the legality of the search. Thus, the Commonwealth asked the Superior Court to find that the good faith exception applies in Birchfield cases because police relied on well-established case law. The Commonwealth also argued that the defendant failed to properly preserve his state law challenge to the blood draw because defense counsel moved to suppress the evidence only under the United States Constitution prior to the hearing and never mentioned the state law claim until the defense filed its post-hearing brief.     

The Superior Court rejected both of the Commonwealth’s arguments. First, the Court recognized that Pennsylvania appellate courts have repeatedly found that there is no good faith exception to the exclusionary rule in Pennsylvania. Thus, while the good faith exception may apply in federal court, it does not apply in Pennsylvania state courts. The only issue is whether officers violated the law; it does not save the Commonwealth’s case that the officers relied on the law at the time. Second, the Court rejected the Commonwealth’s argument that Carper waived the state law claims by failing to mention them in the initial motion. This would have led to the motion being denied because under the federal law claims, the good faith exception would have applied. Nonetheless, the Court rejected this argument as well, finding that the Commonwealth had not been prejudiced because the Commonwealth extensively briefed the state law issues and presented testimony relating to the issue of coercion at the suppression hearing. Further, the defense preserved the issue by filing the post-hearing brief and allowing the trial court to rule on it. Therefore, the Court rejected both of the Commonwealth’s appellate issues.  

Following Carper, it is clear that the good faith exception does not apply in Birchfield DUI cases. States may not penalize DUI suspects for refusing to submit to blood testing without a search warrant. Although prosecutors continuously ask the appellate courts to adopt a good faith exception in Pennsylvania, the courts have fortunately refused to do so thus far.  

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