dui

PA Supreme Court: Chemical Testing Refusal May Be Used Against DUI Defendant At Trial

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Bell, holding that the Commonwealth may introduce a defendant’s refusal to submit to a blood test in its case-in-chief against a defendant in his DUI trial as evidence of guilt. The Court concluded that the prosecution may use such a refusal to argue that the defendant acted with the consciousness of guilt. The refusal, however, still may not be used as the basis for increased criminal penalties unless police have first obtained a search warrant.

Commonwealth v. Bell 

The defendant was arrested for suspicion of DUI on May 16, 2015. After his arrest, he was transferred to the Lycoming County DUI center. At the DUI center, a detective read the defendant the PennDOT DL-26 form, and he subsequently refused a blood test. He was subsequently charged with DUI along with other summary traffic offenses. 

Prior to his trial, the defendant filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss arguing that he had a constitutional right to refuse to submit to a warrantless blood test and thus evidence of his refusal should be suppressed and the DUI charge dismissed. The trial court denied his motion and he proceeded to have a bench trial on the same day. At his trial, the arresting officer testified regarding the defendant’s refusal to submit to blood testing and that the defendant asserted he did not want a needle in his arm because he had previously contracted hepatitis from a hospital needle. At the conclusion of the trial, the defendant was found guilty of all charges. 

 The defendant then filed a motion for reconsideration. He specifically argued that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota precluded states from penalizing DUI defendants for refusing to submit to warrantless blood testing and he should be granted a new trial at which evidence of his refusal would be inadmissible. The trial court agreed with the defendant and determined that he was entitled to a new trial because the court relied on his refusal as a basis for the DUI conviction. The Commonwealth then filed an interlocutory appeal to the Superior Court. The Commonwealth argued that Birchfield did not affect the admissibility of refusal evidence to show consciousness of guilt. In response, the defendant argued that Birchfield created a constitutional right to refuse a warrantless blood test and the admission of his refusal was improper because it penalized him for exercising his constitutional rights. 

The Superior Court’s Decision 

A three-judge panel of the Superior Court reversed the trial court’s order granting the defendant a new trial and remanded the case for sentencing. The panel reviewed Pennsylvania’s implied consent statute and found that suspected drunk drivers do not have a constitutional right to refuse a blood test and it was constitutionally permissible for the Commonwealth to introduce evidence of such refusal. The defendant then filed a petition for allowance of appeal and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. 

What is the Implied Consent Statute? 

The implied consent statute is codified under 75 Pa C.S. § 1547. It provides that that “any person who drives…a vehicle in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania shall have been deemed to have given consent to one or more chemical tests of breath, blood or urine.” If someone does not comply with § 1547, then they can face a license suspension. Further, the statute also allows for the introduction of this evidence into a criminal trial against a defendant. This was the relevant statute in the instant case.  

What Was The Holding in Birchfield

In Birchfield, the United States Supreme Court held that blood and breath tests are governed by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Additionally, although implied consent with respect to warrantless breath tests is constitutionally permissible, blood draws are different because taking blood is more intrusive than giving a breath sample. Therefore, the police need a warrant (or actual consent) before they can take a blood test. Additionally, a state may not impose criminal penalties on a suspect who refuses to submit to a warrantless blood test. The Birchfield Court did not rule on whether evidence of the refusal could be used at trial to show consciousness of guilt. In other words, the Court did not determine whether prosecutors could argue that a defendant who refuses a blood test likely has something to hide.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Decision 

A divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Commonwealth may introduce evidence of a defendant’s refusal as substantive evidence against him in a DUI trial. In making its decision, the majority analyzed not only United States Supreme Court decisions, but also decisions from other state courts. The majority’s logic was that driving is not a constitutional right and therefore if someone drives in Pennsylvania, they must comply with the implied consent law. The majority acknowledged that this may be a “difficult choice” for some motorists, but because driving is a “civil privilege” there was no constitutional issues in requiring drivers to make said choice. Further, the majority found that Birchfield did not expressly forbid states from introducing these evidentiary consequences for refusal and therefore believed that the United States Supreme Court would agree with their decision. As such, the defendant will not get a new trial, and his case will be remanded for sentencing.  

FACING CRIMINAL CHARGES? WE CAN HELP.

Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

Criminal Defense Lawyers Zak Goldstein and Demetra Mehta

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, DUI, PWID, Rape, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today. 

 

PA Supreme Court: Police May Often Search Commercial Trucks Without a Warrant

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Maguire, holding that individuals engaged in highly regulated commercial activities such as commercial trucking are not entitled to the same constitutional safeguards as the general public. This decision is highly relevant to those engaged in the trucking industry because it permits the government to set up checkpoints that would normally not be constitutional if they were designed to stop and search the general public. Therefore, those who are employed in this industry must be especially careful when engaged in commercial activities.  

Commonwealth v. Maguire 

On May 20, 2015, the Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (hereinafter “DEP”) set up a commercial vehicle inspection program in accordance with 75 Pa.C.S. § 4704 which permits the police to set up a “systematic vehicle inspection program…to determine whether they meet standards established in department regulations.” The inspection was scheduled one month in advance, and it occurred at a Clinton County landfill located in McElhatten, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State Trooper Beaver, a motor vehicle enforcement officer, and a motor carrier enforcement supervisor comprised the team that conducted the checkpoint inspections. This team was stationed in a lot in front of the scale house near the entrance of the landfill. 

This team established and utilized a procedure where the first team member available would stop the next truck entering the landfill. At approximately 2:50 PM, it was Trooper Beaver’s turn to inspect a truck when he observed the defendant driving his truck. Trooper Beaver exited his vehicle and motioned for the defendant to pull into the lot where the team was located. The defendant complied with his request. Trooper Beaver then engaged the defendant in conversation and asked him to provide him with documents pertinent to the truck and its operation. While speaking with the defendant, Trooper Beaver detected smell of alcohol on the defendant’s breath. He then reviewed the defendant’s documents and did a walk-around inspection of the truck. 

Following the inspection, Trooper Beaver had the defendant exit the truck and told him that he smelled of alcohol and asked whether he had been drinking. The defendant stated he had one beer prior to his trip to the landfill. At this point, Trooper Beaver noticed a cooler on the floor of the truck near the gearshift. Inside this cooler, he saw three Busch light beers and two bottles of water. The defendant was then asked to perform a field sobriety test, which he failed. The defendant was then placed under arrest and transported to the Jersey Shore Hospital for blood testing. He was subsequently charged with DUI and five other counts of unlawful activities. 

The Motion to Suppress

The defendant then filed a motion to suppress the evidence. In his motion to suppress, the defendant argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because Trooper Beaver and his team did not comply with the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines which were promulgated to test the constitutionality of systematic, police-conducted vehicle checkpoints which were used to stop members of the general public (specifically for DUI’s). The trial court held a hearing at which Trooper Beaver was the only witness to testify. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court ordered the parties to submit post-hearing briefs. The Commonwealth filed a brief arguing that the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines are inapplicable to the commercial vehicle safety checkpoints that were used in the instant case. The trial court agreed with the defendant and granted his motion to suppress. The Commonwealth then filed a timely appeal. 

On appeal, the Superior Court agreed with the Commonwealth. The Superior Court held that the Tarber/Blouse guidelines did not apply to a checkpoint for commercial vehicles. Instead, the trial court should have analyzed the checkpoint under the factors discussed in the United States Supreme Court’s case in New York v. Burger (these are guidelines that are directed at commercial related activities). Based on these Burger factors, the Superior Court held that the search was constitutional and reversed the trial court. The defendant then filed a petition for allowance of appeal, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted review.

What are the Tarbert/Blouse Guidelines? 

The Tarbert/Blouse guidelines are factors that a court uses to determine whether a checkpoint is constitutional. Remember, the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. If the police stop you at one of these checkpoints, this is technically a seizure. These checkpoints are commonly used to deter and arrest people who are suspected of driving under the influence. Pennsylvania appellate courts have held that these checkpoints are constitutional, so long as they sufficiently comply with the Tarbert/ Blouse guidelines.

According to the guidelines:

1) vehicle stops must be brief and must not entail a physical search;

2) there must be sufficient warning of the existence of the checkpoint;

3) the decision to conduct a checkpoint, as well as the decisions as to time and place for the checkpoint, must be subject to prior administrative approval;

4) the choice of time and place for the checkpoint must be based on local experience as to where and when intoxicated drivers are likely to be traveling; and

5) the decision as to which vehicles to stop at the checkpoint must be established by administratively pre-fixed, objective standards, and must not be left to the unfettered discretion of the officers at the scene.

It is important to remember that it is not required that all of these guidelines are present. Rather, they are just guidelines to determine whether the checkpoint in question is sufficiently compliant with the constitution.    

What are the Burger Factors? 

The Burger Court recognized owners of a commercial business or vehicle in a closely regulated industry have a substantially reduced expectation of privacy, and therefore, the Fourth Amendment warrant and probable cause requirements are lower for these individuals. Therefore, a warrantless inspection is constitutional if: 1) there is a substantial governmental interest informing the regulatory scheme pursuant to which the inspection was made; 2) warrantless inspections are necessary to advance the regulatory scheme; and 3) the statute’s inspection program is applied with such certainty and regularity as to prove a constitutionally adequate substitute for a warrant.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Decision 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s decision and held that the Tarbert/Blouse guidelines were not applicable to the instant case. The Court reasoned that when the defendant was stopped, he was engaged in the trucking business, which is a closely regulated industry. Additionally, the Court stated that “owners of certain closely regulated businesses should expect that their businesses would be subject to warrantless administrative searches.” Therefore, the defendant had a reduced expectation of privacy when he was engaged in his trucking business. As such, his case will be remanded to the trial court and the Commonwealth will be able to use all the evidence that was suppressed in their case against him. 

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.


Note: Goldstein Mehta LLC’s Philadelphia Criminal Defense Blog was recently recognized as one of the Top 50 Criminal Defense Blogs on the web by Feedspot.com. We greatly appreciate this recognition.

Attorney Goldstein Wins Dismissal of DUI Case Due to Racist Police Facebook Posts

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire recently won the case of Commonwealth v. R.J.when the Commonwealth agreed to withdraw the case due to the racist Facebook posts posted on social media by the arresting officer. In R.J., police established a DUI checkpoint on a Saturday night. R.J. was stopped at the checkpoint and ordered out of the car when the police determined that they smelled an odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle. They then performed field sobriety tests, which they claimed he failed, and placed him under arrest. Officers then detained R.J. in a holding pen for about an hour prior to administering a breathalyzer. The breathalyzer showed that R.J. had a BAC well above the legal limit, so police formally arrested him and charged him with DUI.

Attorney Goldstein filed a motion to suppress in the Municipal Court, and the motion was originally successful. Attorney Goldstein argued both that police had failed to follow the requirements of the Pennsylvania Constitution in determining the location of the checkpoint and that the Commonwealth failed to meet its burden at the motion because police did not call the officer who actually arrested R.J. to testify. Instead, they called his partner who was standing nearby when the arresting officer ordered R.J. out of the car. Thus, Attorney Goldstein argued that the officer that actually testified was basing his information about the arrest and odor of alcohol entirely on hearsay, and therefore the Commonwealth failed to prove at the evidentiary hearing on the motion that police actually had probable cause or reasonable suspicion to detain R.J.. 

The Municipal Court found that the checkpoint was constitutional but agreed that the Commonwealth was required to call the actual arresting officer to testify. Therefore, the Court granted the motion. The Commonwealth, however, appealed the granting of the suppression motion to the Court of Common Pleas. The Common Pleas judge found that the two officers were working together, and therefore the collective knowledge doctrine applied. The Court of Common Pleas reasoned that the partner was entitled to rely on the observations of the original arresting officer and that the Commonwealth had met its burden. Therefore, the Common Pleas judge reversed the granting of the motion and remanded the case for trial. 

Attorney Goldstein and R.J. made the decision to continue fighting the case even after the Common Pleas Court reversed the suppression motion. Attorney Goldstein still planned to challenge whether police had properly observed R.J. for the twenty-minutes required by PennDOT regulations prior to conducting R.J.’s breath test. However, shortly before trial, the Commonwealth turned over records showing that the arresting officer, who they had not called to testify at trial, had posted dozens of extremely racist and anti-muslim messages on Facebook. The Commonwealth turned this over right before trial, so Attorney Goldstein moved for the court to dismiss the charges based on the fact that the Commonwealth had violated its discovery obligations under the Rules of Criminal Procedure and under the Pennsylvania Constitution. Essentially, the police had known about the messages for months, and therefore they constituted Brady material that should have been turned over prior to the motion to suppress. After Attorney Goldstein moved to dismiss the case due to the Brady violation and discovery violation, or in the alternative, re-open the motion to suppress for a new hearing at which the arresting officer would have to testify and be confronted with the horrific posts, the trial judge asked the Commonwealth to consider withdrawing the charges, and they eventually did. All charges against R.J. were dismissed and he will be eligible to have the arrest expunged.

 Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Rape, and Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.

PA Superior Court: DUI Defendant May Call Expert Witness to Attack Validity of Field Sobriety Tests

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Taylor. In Taylor, the Superior Court reversed the defendant’s conviction for DUI because the trial court improperly prohibited the defendant’s expert witness from testifying that field sobriety tests have not been scientifically validated for use in detecting impairment due to drugs. This is an important decision for defendants who are facing DUI charges and who may not have submitted to a blood test because it may allow the defendant to use expert testimony to attack the validity of field sobriety tests. 

Commonwealth v. Taylor

The defendant was driving her car in York County, Pennsylvania with her 18-month-old child secured in the back seat.. She was driving twenty miles above the speed limit, and  when a traffic light in front of her turned red, the defendant abruptly braked and nearly rear-ended a stopped vehicle in front of her. A few seconds after the light turned green, the defendant rapidly accelerated her car over a nearby curb and crashed into a utility pole located about 100 feet from the road.

A motorist who saw the accident pulled over next to the defendant’s car and offered to help her. The defendant got out of her car and told the motorist that she was not injured. Thankfully, her child was also unharmed. While speaking with the motorist, the defendant attempted to shut her car door, but the motorist stopped it from shutting because it could have hit the child’s outstretched arm.

A local police officer arrived at the scene of the accident a few minutes later. He observed the defendant having blood shot eyes and slurred speech, but he did not smell alcohol on her. Per the officer, the defendant also appeared to be confused and very tired. The officer then had the defendant perform two standard field sobriety tests. He had her walk in a straight line and and then do a test involving walking and turning 180 degrees. According to the officer, the defendant performed poorly on the tests. She allegedly had trouble  balancing herself and following directions. The defendant’s body swayed during the tests, and she used her arms to keep steady. She also started the tests before being told to do so.

The officer arrested the defendant on suspicion of DUI and Endangering the Welfare of a Child (“EWOC”). While in custody, she admitted to taking Adderall and Xanax, but she could not provide the amounts taken or how long before the accident she had taken the medications. She denied having any injuries or medical conditions that could have affected her ability to operate a motor vehicle. At trial, the Commonwealth did not allege that the defendant was impaired by alcohol. Further, the Commonwealth did not introduce the results of any blood testing into evidence. Instead, the Commonwealth relied primarily on the arresting officer’s testimony regarding the defendant’s car accident and how she performed on the field sobriety tests. The officer testified at length regarding his expertise in administering those tests. Other than describing the scene of the accident, almost all of the officer’s testimony was focused on how poorly the defendant performed on the tests. He further testified that the defendant’s performance indicated impairment due to drug use.

The defense attributed the defendant’s performance to a possible head injury from the accident. Additionally, the defendant attempted to rebut the officer’s testimony with the opinion of its own expert witness, a medical toxicologist and physician. The doctor planned to testify that there was no scientific basis to rely on field sobriety tests to detect drug impairment because they have only been validated to reveal intoxication from alcohol. The trial court qualified the doctor as an expert in toxicology and on the scientific basis for field sobriety tests.

The doctor testified that he reviewed the defendant’s medical history and confirmed that she had been prescribed Xanax and Adderall. He also testified that after using the medication for 30 days, the medications should have little to no side effects. The defendant had been prescribed the medication for over 30 days prior to the accident, but there was no evidence regarding what dosages she took. However, when the doctor attempted to testify about field sobriety tests, the Commonwealth objected and the court sustained the objection. As such, the doctor could not testify about the utility of field sobriety’s tests in detecting drug impairment. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found the defendant guilty of DUI and EWOC. The defendant then filed post-sentence motions which were denied. The defendant then filed a timely appeal.

What is Expert Testimony?

Rule 702 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence governs expert testimony. Expert testimony is not relevant in every case. In other words, you cannot call an expert to claim that a witness is lying. It is only admissible when an expert has an opinion on a subject which requires knowledge, information, or skill beyond what is possessed by the ordinary juror. In criminal cases, expert witnesses are most often used in cases that involve some form of medicine or science. They are common in DUI cases and many motor vehicle cases.

In determining whether to qualify someone as an expert, courts are supposed to employ a liberal standard when determining if a witness qualifies as an expert in a particular field of study. The witness does not need to possess all of the knowledge in a given field, but the witness must possess more knowledge than is otherwise within the ordinary range of training, knowledge, intelligence or experience. Further, a witness does not need formal education to qualify as an expert, although it certainly helps. This case focused on whether a witness can testify as an expert witness without having practical, hands-on experience in the field. In this case, the trial court prohibited the doctor from testifying that the tests had not been validated for detecting drug usage because the doctor was not a police officer and had never performed the tests on someone himself.

The Superior Court’s Decision

The Superior Court held that it was reversible error for the trial court to preclude the doctor’s testimony concerning field sobriety tests. As a preliminary matter, the Superior Court held that the doctor was qualified as an expert in this particular field and that the Commonwealth did not dispute any of these qualifications. Additionally, the Superior Court found that the  testimony would have gone to the heart of the issues in the defendant’s trial.

The Commonwealth was trying to prove that the defendant was impaired due to drug use, and prosecutors did not have any blood test results. They sought to prove intoxication by using the testimony of the officer and his observations of the defendant. They specifically sought to base a potential conviction on his observations of the defendant when she performed the field sobriety tests. If the doctor’s  testimony had been admitted, it could have rebutted the officer’s conclusion that the defendant was impaired by drugs. As a result of the judge’s preclusion of  the doctor’s testimony, the officer’s opinion on the defendant’s drug impairment went unchallenged. Therefore, this error in excluding the expert testimony resulted in significant prejudice to the defendant, and she will receive a new trial.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers Demetra Mehta and Zak Goldstein

If you are facing criminal charges or are under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have won cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, DUI, Aggravated Assault, Rape, Possession with the Intent to Deliver, and Homicide. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.