dui

PA Superior Court Approves Current Philadelphia Police DUI Checkpoint Procedures

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esq.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Mercado, holding that Philadelphia Police conducted a constitutional DUI checkpoint despite the fact that the officer who planned the checkpoint selected the location of the checkpoint without any data indicating how many DUIs have occurred at the location of the checkpoint. This is an extremely bad case for privacy rights which allows police to basically establish motor vehicle checkpoints at will without any prior research. The decision also conflicts with the court’s longstanding precedent in cases like Commonwealth v. Blee and Commonwealth v. Garibay.

The Facts of Mercado  

In Mercado, the Philadelphia police stopped the defendant at a DUI checkpoint on the 300 block of East Allegheny Ave in Philadelphia, PA. The officers noticed that the defendant had bloodshot, glassy eyes, and they smelled the odor of burnt marijuana coming from his vehicle and breath. The defendant subsequently admitted to smoking marijuana. He submitted to a “field sobriety test” and presumably failed, and the police then took him into custody on suspicion of DUI. They then transported him to the Police Detention Unit for a blood test.

Prosecutors later charged the defendant with DUI in the Philadelphia Municipal Court. The defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the results of the stop, including the blood test results, arguing that the police did not have sufficient data regarding prior incidences of DUI at 300 East Kensington Ave. to establish a constitutional checkpoint at that location.

At the motions hearing, the Commonwealth called the Philadelphia Police Lieutenant who ran the checkpoint to testify. The lieutenant testified that to determine the location of the checkpoint in question, he tabulated all DUI-related incidents in Philadelphia over the previous two years and broke those figures down by DUI-related incidents per police district. He found that the 25th police district, which is 2.3 square miles, had the most DUIs in the city during that period.

He did not have any data specific to the location of the checkpoint. However, he testified that he selected that location because it is one of the only locations in the district which would be large enough and safe enough to conduct a checkpoint involving eighteen police officers, two police cruisers, and one large processing center the size of a fire truck. He also testified that the 300 block of East Allegheny Ave is a main vein of travel within the 25th district.

The Motion to Suppress and Appeal

The Philadelphia Municipal Court granted the motion to suppress, finding that existing case law required the officer to have data specific to the location of the checkpoint in order to avoid a constitutional violation. The Commonwealth appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, and the motions court judge in the Court of Common Pleas affirmed the order granting the motion to suppress. The Commonwealth then appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

 The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the decision of the Municipal Court and ruled that the motion to suppress should not have been granted. The Court noted that DUI checkpoints are governed by the “Tarbert/Blouse” guidelines. Pursuant to those guidelines, the Commonwealth must be able to show that the checkpoint satisfied five requirements in order to be constitutional.

Those requirements are:

  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.

Further, substantial compliance with the guidelines is all that is require in order to minimize the intrusiveness of a roadblock seizure to a constitutionally acceptable level.

The Court’s Opinion

The Court found that Philadelphia Police substantially complied with these rules. The officer testified that he selected the route based on statistical data demonstrating that the district in question accounted for the highest rate of DUI arrests in the city, and that Allegheny Avenue was the main avenue of East-West travel in the district. He also considered traffic volume and safety factors when selecting the location of the checkpoint. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the police should have had some kind of data relating specifically to Allegheny Avenue. Instead, the Court reasoned that the relatively high rate of DUIs in that district coupled with the safety considerations considered by the lieutenant made the selection of that location constitutional.

Unfortunately, this decision amounts to carte blanche for the police to establish a checkpoint anytime and anywhere. Previous decisions such as Commonwealth v. Blee and Commonwealth v. Garibay required actual numbers as to how many DUIs occurred on the street selected for the checkpoint. This opinion lets the police simply establish a checkpoint in any district where they can testify that the district has a large number of DUIs and on any road that could be characterized as a busy road. The opinion simply ignores the prior case law, and hopefully it will be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Hopefully, this opinion may be limited to the 25th District as that is the only district where police would be able to claim that the district has the highest number of DUIs. In other districts, police may still be required to have more information before establishing a checkpoint. Each DUI case involving a checkpoint should still be carefully evaluated for a potential “checkpoint motion” as well as a motion to suppress based on other grounds such as an illegal arrest or the failure to provide Miranda warnings.

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

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 obtained full acquittals and dismissals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, Forgery, Access Device Fraud, 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.

PA Superior Court: Pulling Over to the Side of Road Is Not Suspicious

IMG_0002.PNG

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Hampton, holding that police illegally stopped the defendant by physically blocking in his car after the officer saw the defendant do nothing more than pull over to the side of the road. In Hampton, the Court rejected the idea that an officer can stop someone under the community caretaking exception to the warrant requirement just because they pulled over to the side of the road.

The Facts of Commonwealth v. Hampton

In Hampton, a Montgomery County, PA  police officer was on patrol in a marked vehicle at approximately 3:22 am. The officer saw a vehicle drive by her, turn, and then pull over into a field on a property belonging to a church. The driver, who was later identified as the defendant, stopped his car in the grass in front of the church’s office building. The officer pulled behind the car, but she did not activate her lights or sirens. She did, however, park her car in such a way that the car blocked the defendant’s ability to drive back onto the road. The defendant and his passenger eventually got out of their vehicle, and after an interaction with the officer, the officer ended up arresting the defendant for Driving Under the Influence.

The Motion to Suppress

After prosecutors charged the defendant with DUI, the defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress all of the evidence. The defendant argued that the officer stopped the defendant by physically blocking his car with her car without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. At the hearing on the motion to suppress, the officer admitted that she had “stopped” the defendant and that her car physically blocked his. She also admitted that she had not seen any evidence of ongoing criminal activity or motor vehicle code violations. However, she testified that she pulled in behind the defendant because she was concerned that he could be having some kind of medical emergency or car trouble. She also had not activated her lights or sirens. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. Because this was the defendant’s third DUI offense, the court sentenced the defendant to 1 – 5 years’ state incarceration.

The Superior Court Appeal

The defendant appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court ultimately overturned the conviction and found that the trial court should have granted the motion.

First, the Superior Court concluded that although the officer did not activate her lights or sirens or specifically tell the defendant to stop, the officer had stopped the defendant by physically blocking the movement of his car. Because the officer had conducted a stop for Fourth Amendment purposes, the officer was required to have reasonable suspicion, probable cause, or some other exception to the warrant requirement.

Second, the Superior Court concluded that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop the defendant because the officer candidly testified at the motion to suppress hearing that she did not see any criminal activity of any kind.

Third, the Superior Court rejected the trial court’s conclusion that the stop was justified by the community caretaking exception. Under the community caretaking exception, police may conduct a warrantless search or seizure under limited circumstances such as to render emergency aid when such aid is reasonably necessary. In order for the exception to apply, the officer’s actions must be motivated by a desire to render aid or assistance rather than the investigation of criminal activity. Additionally, the officer must be able to point to specific, objective, and articulable facts that would reasonably suggest to an experienced officer that a citizen is in need of assistance. Thus, the officer must have reasonably believed that an actual emergency was ongoing.

Here, the Superior Court rejected the application of the community caretaking exception because the defendant did nothing more than pull over to the side of the road. Such behavior is encouraged and perfectly consistent with innocent activity. A motorist may pull over the road to answer the phone, rest for a moment, check a map, or for any number of other legitimate reasons. Therefore, the community caretaking exception did not apply. Accordingly, the Court reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to grant the motion to suppress.

This is a good case for Fourth Amendment rights because the Superior Court recognized the obvious fact that when a police officer in a marked car blocks someone’s ability to drive away, the officer has stopped that person for Fourth Amendment purposes. In many cases, courts attempt to characterize contact between police and defendants as a “mere encounter” which does not require any level of suspicion. Here, the Court recognized that any reasonable person in the defendant’s position would not have felt free to leave and therefore a stop had occurred. 

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Lawyers

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Lawyers

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 state and federal courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have obtained full acquittals and dismissals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, DUI, 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.

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. 

Facing criminal charges? We can help.

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyers

If you are facing criminal charges or may be under investigation, we can help. We are experienced and understanding Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers who will fight for you. We have successfully defended thousands of clients in trial courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as on appeal and in Post-Conviction Relief Act Petitions. We offer a complimentary 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an award-winning defense attorney today. 

award-winning-criminal-lawyers.jpg
criminal-lawyers-awards.jpg

PA Superior Court Finds Police-Created Exigent Circumstances Support Warrantless Blood Draw in Homicide by DUI Case

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Trahey. In Trahey, the Court held that because Philadelphia Police were understaffed, failed to respond to the incident in a timely manner, and did not have procedures in place for quickly obtaining a warrant by electronic means, officers were justified in conducting a warrantless blood draw of a suspect who had been arrested on suspicion of Homicide by DUI. The opinion is an absurdity which suggests that because the Philadelphia Police have not taken adequate steps to investigate cases and create procedures for quickly obtaining search warrants even in potential homicide cases, they can ignore the United States Supreme Court's holding in Birchfield that drawing a suspect's blood in a DUI case requires voluntary, uncoerced consent or a search warrant. 

Commonwealth v. Trahey

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Zak T. Goldstein, Esquire

On September 4, 2015, which was Labor Day weekend, 911 dispatchers received a report that a car had struck a cyclist on the 4900 block of Wynnewood Avenue in Philadelphia. Despite the call about someone being struck, police were not dispatched to the scene until approximately 45 minutes after receiving the call. Officers testified that this was “due to the lower priority of auto accidents on the hierarchy of circumstances in which Philadelphia Police Officers are dispatched to emergency situations.” The 911 call did not mention that this may be a DUI-related crash or that someone had been seriously injured. 

Upon arrival, police officers observed a smashed bicycle and a pickup truck that was partially on the sidewalk. The police testified that the truck’s hood and grill were damaged, its windshield was shattered, and there was blood on the street. The officers spoke to a group of bystanders who informed them that the defendant had been driving the truck and the cyclist, who he had hit, had been transported to the hospital. Unfortunately, the cyclist died as a result of this incident.

The defendant told one of the officers that he was the driver of the truck that struck the cyclist. While speaking with the defendant, the officer noticed that the defendant had a strong odor of alcohol on his person, his speech was slow and slurred, his eyes were glassy, and he had an unsteady gait. Based on these observations, the officer believed that the defendant was under the influence of alcohol. The officer arrested the defendant for DUI. It does not appear that any field sobriety tests were performed despite the fact that the officers were on the scene for approximately 45 minutes before they arrested the defendant. They then left the scene to transport the defendant to police headquarters for booking and presumably for a blood test.            

While en route to police headquarters, the officers were called back to the scene by the Accident Investigation District (AID). AID is a unit that investigates car accidents and DUI cases. One of the AID officers examined the defendant and also noticed signs of intoxication. The AID officer learned that nearly ninety minutes had already passed since the crash. This is significant because police have two hours to do a blood test or a breathalyzer after they arrest someone on suspicion of DUI. After two hours, the results of the test become significantly less accurate. The rules therefore suggest that a court should not allow prosecutors to use the results of an untimely test. Consequently, one of the AID officers sent the defendant back to the police headquarters for a blood test and/or breathalyzer.

When the defendant arrived at police headquarters, he gave verbal consent to the blood testing, and he signed a 75-439 form which is the written version of these warnings. However, on this form, he did not check the box that consented to blood testing. After all of this, the defendant had blood taken from his arm. It was two hours and five minutes after the accident occurred. The defendant was subsequently charged with homicide by vehicle, homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, involuntary manslaughter, and DUI. He then filed a pre-trial suppression motion in which he argued that the police subjected him to an unlawful search by taking his blood without a search warrant. 

The Motion to Suppress 

Several police officers testified at the hearing. They generally testified that officers would not have had sufficient time to seek a warrant for the chemical testing of the defendant’s blood within two hours of the accident. They also testified that a significant amount of time had elapsed before the officers were able to respond to the accident scene and that they did not know this was potentially a DUI related accident. It is important to remember that the 911 call did mention that someone had been struck by an automobile, yet apparently this had no effect on the promptness of the Philadelphia police’s response time to the scene of the accident.

The officers provided a number of different reasons for why they could not get a warrant within the two-hour time frame. This included: it would have taken too long to type up the warrant, drive from the accident to the AID headquarters, communicate with the on-call prosecutor for approval of the affidavit, arrange to meet with an available commissioner to consider the warrant application, travel to arraignment court, wait for a commissioner, have the commissioner review the application, and then return to the police headquarters with the approved request. The officer estimated that the entire process could take anywhere from seventy minutes to three hours.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress.  The trial court held that the defendant’s oral consent was invalid because of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota (which holds that the government cannot subject you to a penalty by refusing to consent to blood testing). However, the suppression court did not address the exigent circumstances argument posed by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth then filed a timely interlocutory appeal.

What is the “Exigent Circumstances” Exception to the Warrant Requirement?

Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protect individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. Usually, this means that if the government wants to go into your home or take something from your body (i.e. blood) the government needs a warrant to do so. However, throughout the years, both federal and Pennsylvania case law has evolved to include an “exigent circumstances” exception. Typically, this is limited to circumstances where there is a reasonable belief that evidence will be destroyed unless the police take prompt action. Courts use a totality of the circumstances approach to analyze the facts of a particular case in determining whether there were exigent circumstances.     

To give an example of exigent circumstances, let’s say a police officer sees someone engage in a hand-to-hand exchange of drugs for money. The police then approach the defendant, and he runs into a house. The police officer follows him into this house and seizes drugs from his person. At a motion to suppress, the Commonwealth may reasonably be able to argue that there were exigent circumstances because if the police officer had not gone into the house, the defendant would have had time to flush the drugs down the toilet or find some other way to destroy them. Therefore, depending on all of the circumstances, a court could rule that the officer was not required to obtain a search warrant and deny the defendant’s motion to suppress.

The exigent circumstances exception has been applied in DUI cases, as well. This is understandable to some extent because alcohol in a person's blood dissipates relatively quickly.  However, exigent circumstances do not automatically apply in DUI cases solely from the fact that alcohol eventually dissipates. The United States Supreme Court addressed this issue in the case of Missouri v. McNeely. The Court held that the natural dissipation of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream is not a per se (automatic) exigency and held that the police are not free from the requirement of obtaining a search warrant to obtain a DUI suspect’s blood. However, McNeely also did not hold that the police must always get a warrant to take a DUI suspect’s blood. The McNeely court acknowledged that obtaining a warrant is not always practical in DUI cases. Therefore, in cases where the police do not get a warrant, courts must analyze the facts of a given case to determine whether it was objectively reasonable for the police to draw blood without a search warrant.       

The Pennsylvania Superior Court Holds That Easily Resolved Logistical Challenges Qualify as Exigent Circumstances

In Trahey, the suppression court did not address the issue of exigent circumstances.  Nonetheless, instead of remanding the case for the suppression court to consider whether there were exigent circumstances, the Superior Court improperly decided to conduct the analysis itself. Of course, it found that there were exigent circumstances in this case. What is absurd about the Superior Court’s decision is that the exigent circumstances that the Court found in favor of the Commonwealth were entirely created by the Philadelphia Police Department's poor performance in giving the call priority and failure to create electronic or telephonic procedures for obtaining a search warrant. Such procedures for quickly obtaining a search warrant in emergency situations obviously exist in countless jurisdictions both small and large throughout the country, but the Superior Court refused to suggest that a jurisdiction as large as Philadelphia should be expected to implement them. 

The Superior Court gave a slew of reasons as to why there were exigent circumstances in this case. One of the reasons was that that the officers did not arrive on scene until 45 minutes after the accident. However, this was because the emergency dispatch in Philadelphia does not prioritize car accidents for police response (apparently even when the 911 call indicates that someone has been hit). Further, when the police arrived on scene, it took an additional 45 minutes for the officers to determine that the defendant may have been under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. This determination was not because the officers had the defendant engage in any field sobriety tests. Rather, it took this long based on their observations of the defendant and conversations with him and bystanders. Additionally, the Superior Court noted that on this particular night, the Philadelphia police lacked manpower because only 5 AID officers were assigned to Philadelphia on Labor Day weekend.

As such, all of these exigent circumstances were a consequence of the failures of the Philadelphia Police to be adequately prepared. Thus, arguably, the police created the exigent circumstances in this case. Courts have held that if the police create the exigent circumstances, they are not entitled to sidestep the protections of the Pennsylvania and the United States Constitution. However, the Superior Court’s decision in Trahey does exactly that: it incentivizes the police to not be prepared so that they can later claim exigent circumstances and evade the Constitution's search warrant requirement. Trahey will likely be appealed, and hopefully an en banc panel of the Court or the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will reverse it and require law enforcement to comply with the Pennsylvania and United States Constitutions. 

Award-Winning Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia DUI Defense Attorneys

Philadelphia DUI Defense Attorneys

DUI cases can be complicated. However, there are several ways to beat them. If you are charged with DUI, you need a skilled attorney with the knowledge and expertise to fight your case. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers have successfully defended countless DUI cases. We offer a 15-minute criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to discuss your case with an experienced and understanding criminal defense attorney today.