Recent Court Decisions Create More Problems for Blood Testing in PA DUI Cases

PA DUI Update: Even New, Revised Blood Test Warnings May Be Unconstitutional

Pennsylvania courts have already found that large chunks of Pennsylvania’s DUI laws are unconstitutional. Recently, judges on both the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the Philadelphia Municipal Court have found that even police warnings which do not explicitly mention increased criminal penalties for refusing a blood draw could be unconstitutionally coercive and require the suppression of the test results. As written, the state’s DUI law creates an enhanced criminal penalty for motorists who refuse blood testing and are subsequently convicted of DUI. In DUI cases where the defendant is convicted both of driving under the influence and refusing to consent to blood testing, the defendant would be sentenced as a Tier III offender instead of a Tier I offender.

Differences in Sentencing for DUI Tiers

The differences between the mandatory minimums for Tier I DUIs and Tier III DUIs are enormous. For example, a first offense, Tier I DUI requires the court to impose a sentence of six months of probation, fines, classes, and other conditions. However, there is no mandatory minimum jail sentence, and there is no required PennDOT driver’s license suspension. On the other hand, a first offense, Tier III DUI conviction requires the court to impose 72 hours of incarceration and a one year driver’s license suspension in addition to enhanced fines and other conditions. Thus, the difference between a Tier I and a Tier III can be real time in jail and a significant driver’s license suspension which could lead to the defendant losing his or her employment.

Recent Court Decisions in Pennsylvania DUI Cases

Demetra Mehta, Esq - DUI Lawyer in Philadelphia

Demetra Mehta, Esq - DUI Lawyer in Philadelphia

Recently, courts have begun to strike down the enhanced criminal penalties for refusing a blood test. First, in Birchfield v. North Dakota, the United States Supreme Court held that states may not penalize a motorist for refusing a blood test in cases where the police have not obtained a search warrant for the motorist’s blood. This is because the blood test is an intrusive search of the defendant’s body which falls under the Fourth Amendment and requires a search warrant. According to the Supreme Court, breath tests do not pose the same privacy concerns because the use of a breathalyzer is far less intrusive than a blood test. Of course, this is a problem for DUI enforcement because a breathalyzer cannot detect the use of drugs.  

Prior to Birchfield, various Pennsylvania appellate court opinions and laws required police officers to provide DUI suspects with O’Connell warnings prior to requesting a blood draw. The O’Connell warnings inform the motorist that the motorist will face an increased criminal penalty for refusing the test should the motorist be convicted of both the DUI and refusal. More recently, in Commonwealth v. Evans, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the O’Connell warnings as implemented prior to Birchfield could be unconstitutionally coercive because the state can no longer punish blood test refusals with additional criminal sanctions. Accordingly, Evans held that defendants who were read the O’Connell warnings prior to consenting to a blood test may be entitled to have the results of the blood test excluded from evidence.

Now, in Commonwealth v. Gaetano and Commonwealth v. Bush, judges of the Pennsylvania Superior Court and Philadelphia Municipal Court have ruled that even warnings which do not explicitly reference criminal penalties could be unconstitutionally coercive and require suppression of the evidence. Last week, in Gaetano, the court addressed a situation in which a police officer informed a DUI suspect that the suspect would face a license suspension and “enhanced penalties through PennDOT” if the suspect refused to consent to a blood draw during a DUI stop. Mr. Gaetano consented to the blood test, and the test results showed the presence of a controlled substance in Gaetano’s blood.

Motions to Suppress in DUI Blood Test Cases

Gaetano’s criminal defense attorneys filed a motion to suppress the blood results prior to the Birchfield decision. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. Because the case was pre-Birchfield, the trial court did not consider whether the warnings were unconstitutionally coercive as the law at the time did not support such an argument. After denying the motion to suppress, the trial court found Gaetano guilty of DUI, and Gaetano appealed. 

On appeal, Gaetano was permitted to raise the issue of whether the warnings were unconstitutionally coercive because of the change in constitutional law brought about by Birchfield. Birchfield had not been decided at the time of the motion to suppress, so there were no findings on the record by the trial judge as to whether the warnings provided by the officer were unconstitutionally coercive. Therefore, the Superior Court reversed the conviction and remanded the case to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on the coercive effect of the warnings. The court noted that whether consent is voluntarily obtained depends on the totality of the circumstances. The court opined:

In this case, a crucial component of the “totality of the circumstances” surrounding Gaetano’s consent is the warning given by Sergeant Watkins concerning the consequences of refusal. Unlike the warning we recently addressed in Evans, Sergeant Watkins did not expressly state that Gaetano would face enhanced criminal penalties if he refused consent. Instead, he referenced “enhanced penalties through PennDOT.” The record does not reveal what those enhanced penalties might be, beyond license suspension. In Evans, after concluding that the more explicit warning there was “partially inaccurate,” we “remand[ed] the case to the trial court to ‘reevaluate [Appellant’s] consent . . . [, based on] the totality of all the circumstances . . . [and] given the partial inaccuracy of the officer’s advisory.’” Here, we must do the same, recognizing that Sergeant Watkin’s warning was less blatantly inaccurate than the warning in Evans.

Therefore, although the Superior Court did not find that the warnings of enhanced penalties through PennDOT were definitively illegal, the Court did recognize that under the totality of the circumstances, they could have rendered Gaetano’s consent involuntary and therefore require suppression of the incriminating blood result evidence.

As Gaetano illustrates, police departments throughout the state of Pennsylvania began revising their warnings following the Birchfield decision. For example, the Philadelphia Police currently read two sets of warnings. First, Philadelphia Police Officers read a standard set of warnings which have been created by the State Police. The State Police warnings read:

It is my duty as a police officer to inform you of the following:

You are under arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance in violation of Section 3802 of the Vehicle Code.

I am requesting that you submit to a chemical test of blood.

If you refuse to submit to the blood test, your operating privilege will be suspended for at least 12 months. If you previously refused a chemical test or were previously convicted of driving under the influence, you will be suspended for up to 18 months.

You have no right to speak with an attorney or anyone else before deciding whether to submit to testing. If you request to speak with an attorney or anyone else after being provided these warnings or you remain silent when asked to submit to a blood test, you will have refused the test.

Second, the Philadelphia Police have created their own set of warnings which they provide in conjunction with the State Police warnings. The Philadelphia Police warnings provide:

It is my duty as a police officer to inform you of the following:

You are under arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance in violation of Section 3802 of the Vehicle Code, and I am requesting that you submit to a chemical test of your blood.

You have the right to refuse to submit to a chemical test of your blood. If you refuse to submit to a chemical test of your blood, your operating privilege will be suspended for at least 12 months. If you previously refused a chemical test or were previously convicted of driving under the influence, you will be suspended for up to 18 months.

Additionally, the fact that you refused to submit a chemical test of your blood may be admitted into evidence in subsequent legal proceedings.

You have no right to speak with an attorney or anyone else before deciding whether to submit to testing. If you request to speak with an attorney or anyone else after being provided these warnings or you remain silent when asked to submit to a blood test, you will have refused the test.

The Philadelphia Police warnings are very similar, but they also include the critical provision that the refusal may be submitted into evidence in subsequent legal proceedings.

Motions to Suppress in Philadelphia Municipal Court DUI Cases

In Bush, which actually consolidated four DUI cases, the defendants argued that even the revised warnings were unduly coercive and that the admission of the refusal into evidence against the defendant as evidence of a guilty conscience violates due process. The Municipal Court mostly agreed. The court recognized that “the base of information necessary to make a knowing refusal requires an awareness· of the consequences of that refusal.” This requires giving the suspect both accurate information and adequate information regarding the consequences of a refusal. Therefore, the Municipal Court was concerned that both the Philadelphia Police warnings and State Police warnings do not contain adequate information because they do not inform the defendant that the defendant will not face enhanced criminal penalties. This is particularly problematic because the statute which codified the O’Connell warnings requires the police to inform the motorist of the enhanced criminal penalties which are now unconstitutional following the Birchfield decision. Thus, a defendant who has actually read the law would believe that he or she would face additional criminal penalties for a refusal. Likewise, the fact that the warnings do not indicate whether silence could be used in civil or criminal proceedings but simply says subsequent legal proceedings is confusing and vague. Therefore, the court concluded that both the Philadelphia and State Police warnings are not sufficiently adequate or accurate and could lead to an unconstitutional level of coercion.  

Finally, the Municipal Court also expressed concerns that the use of silence against the defendant at a subsequent criminal prosecution could violate due process and the Fifth Amendment. Both the Pennsylvania and United States constitutions provide protections against self-incrimination – meaning that a defendant cannot be compelled to say incriminating things. However, the warnings inform the defendant that silence will constitute a refusal, and a refusal will be used as evidence against the defendant. Therefore, the Municipal Court also found that this provision of the warnings could violate due process because it essentially compels the defendant to give evidence against himself or herself.

Clearly, the court found a number of potential problems with the warnings which could lead to a successful motion to suppress. However, like the court in Gaetano, the Municipal Court concluded that the coercive effect of the warnings must be evaluated on a case-by-case using a totality of the circumstances test. Therefore, the trial court which hears the motion to suppress must look at the warnings which are actually given to the defendant and whether the defendant understood the warnings or believed that the defendant would face criminal penalties for refusing testing or remaining silent.

A Philadelphia DUI Defense Lawyer Can Help

It is clear from these opinions that Pennsylvania DUI law with respect to blood testing is a mess. Unfortunately, Gaetano is not entirely binding on lower courts because it is currently an unpublished opinion. However, it may be cited for its persuasive value. Likewise, Bush is not binding on other courts because it is only a trial court opinion. However, it is clear that there are serious issues to be raised in any case where the police have obtained a blood draw. In many cases where police do not obtain a search warrant prior to seeking a blood test, there may be strong grounds for a motion to suppress the results of the test. A successful motion to suppress in a DUI case will often lead to the dismissal of the charges or a strong chance for an acquittal at trial. If you or a loved one are facing DUI charges in Pennsylvania, it is critical that you retain an experienced criminal defense attorney who is aware of these recent decisions and changes in the law and able to use them to your advantage. Call 267-225-2545 for a free, 15-minute criminal defense strategy session.

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - DUI Defense Lawyer

Zak T. Goldstein, Esq. - DUI Defense Lawyer