Changes in Pennsylvania DUI Law
Back in August, I wrote about a potential dramatic change in Driving Under the Influence law brought about by the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota. In Birchfield, the United States Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to criminally penalize a motorist for refusing to submit to a DUI blood test when the police have not obtained a search warrant for the motorist's blood. As many criminal defense lawyers predicted at the time, this holding would lead to challenges to Pennsylvania’s DUI statute.
Constitutional Problems with PA's DUI Statute
In the first Pennsylvania appellate decision since Birchfield, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled that the portion of the statute providing increased penalties for refusal is unconstitutional and that the standard police O’Connell warnings which are given to every motorist prior to a blood draw are unconstitutionally coercive. Therefore, under Commonwealth v. Evans, any blood results obtained after a motorist has been read the O’Connell warnings must be suppressed, and a defendant may not face increased criminal penalties for refusing a blood test.
The first problem with the DUI statute arises from the fact that it provides enhanced criminal penalties for a motorist who refuses the blood draw and is later found guilty of DUI. A second problem stems from the fact that Pennsylvania law requires police officers to provide motorists with O’Connell warnings prior to requesting a blood draw. The O’Connell warnings include a warning that failure to consent to the blood test will result in enhanced criminal penalties should the motorist subsequently be charged with and convicted of Driving Under the Influence. Now that a state may not impose additional penalties for refusal, the O’Connell warnings are not accurate.
In Evans, the defendant was arrested for DUI (sometimes referred to as "DWI") and asked by the arresting officer to submit to a blood test. When the officer asked him to submit to the test, the officer read the standard warnings. Those warnings included the statement that a refusal would lead to increased criminal penalties should the defendant subsequently be convicted of DUI. After hearing the warnings, the defendant agreed to the blood test, and the results ultimately put him in the highest tier for a DUI. This triggered a one year mandatory minimum jail sentence, and the defendant was sentenced to 1-6 years of incarceration in a state prison.
Following the Birchfield decision, Evans’ attorney moved to suppress the blood results and argued that although Evans consented to the blood draw, the police had obtained his consent through illegal coercion by reading him the now-inaccurate O'Connell warnings. The trial court disagreed and denied the motion to suppress, but the Superior Court has now reversed the decision of the trial court. The Superior Court recognized that subject to certain exceptions, police must obtain a warrant prior to conducting a search, and drawing blood from a DUI suspect counts as a search. One of the exceptions to the warrant requirement is where the defendant voluntarily consents. Therefore, the case turned on whether or not the refusal statute could survive the Birchfield decision and if not, whether the O’Connell warnings are unconstitutionally coercive due to their inaccuracy.
States May Not Impose Criminal Penalties For Refusing A Blood Test Unless Police Have A Warrant
First, the court noted that under Birchfield, Pennsylvania’s implied consent system in which the refusal to submit to testing may result in increased criminal penalties is unconstitutional. Although refusal itself is not a crime because the defendant must be convicted of DUI in order for the increased penalties to apply, the court noted that the statute does clearly impose criminal penalties on the refusal to submit to testing. The statute makes a conviction following the refusal of testing a Tier III offense instead of a Tier I offense. A Tier III offense always carries a mandatory minimum sentence of incarceration and a driver’s license suspension, whereas a first Tier I offense requires only six months of probation and no driver’s license suspension. Therefore, the court found that the statute is unconstitutional due to Birchfield's holding that a state may not criminalize the refusal to submit to testing.
Second, once the court recognized that the statute is now unconstitutional, it became clear that the police officer’s advisory to the defendant was partially inaccurate. The officer told him that he would face increased criminal penalties for a refusal, as officers having been doing throughout Pennsylvania for years, but that increased penalty would actually be unconstitutional under Birchfield. Accordingly, the court held that the warnings were unconstitutionally coercive and that the trial court should have suppressed the results of the blood test.
New Defenses to DUI Charges
The holding is critically important for many defendants who have been arrested for DUI and either refused the blood test or had their blood drawn without a warrant. It is also something to consider when deciding whether to submit to a blood test. Although the failure to submit to a blood test will still result in an automatic driver's license suspension and inferences which may be used against the defendant at trial, it cannot result in increased criminal penalties.
We Can Help With DUI Charges In Pennsylvania and New Jersey
If you have been arrested for DUI or are even just curious about what to do when the police ask for a blood test, you should consult with an experienced criminal defense lawyer. There are often defenses available which only an experienced criminal lawyer and DUI attorney will recognize. Although police departments have begun to change the warnings that they will be reading going forward, many defendants have already been read incorrect and unconstitutional warnings. If you have been charged with Driving Under the Influence and the police conducted a blood draw or asked you to submit to a blood draw and you refused, you need an experienced criminal lawyer to evaluate your case, recognize the potential defenses, and make the right legal arguments on your behalf. Call 267-225-2545 today for a free, honest consultation.