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Case Bulletin – DUI Legal & Practical Developments; What It Takes to Reach the Legal Limit

Along with DUI laws in states across the country, Pennsylvania DUI laws and associated penalties are changing.  A recent U. S. Supreme Court case, Birchfield v. North Dakota, decided on June 23, 2016, held that taking a blood sample or administering a breath test is a search governed by the Fourth Amendment.  In this context, the Birchfield Court held that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests inci­dent to arrests, basically because the breath leaves your body whether the government wants to inspect it or not.  However, the Court also ruled that warrantless blood tests are protected because of the invasive nature of a blood test.  Its practical effect in Pennsylvania, after over eighteen months since the decision has been evolving.

In the past, officers confronting a DUI suspect about whether they would submit to a blood or breath test were required to read warnings to the suspect, spelled out on PENNDOT Form DL-26 and generally called O’Connell warnings, named after a Pennsylvania case that spurned them.  These warnings indicated that refusal of a chemical test would likely result in the suspension of their driver’s license for one year.  This was and is a civil penalty administered by PENNDOT that still exists.  This one-year refusal suspension is currently still legal because the Birchfield Court stated that it is legal for a state to impose a civil penalty involving a license suspension for refusing a blood test.  However, in an important development, the Birchfield Court also ruled that it is unconstitutional for a state to impose an enhanced criminal penalty for refusing a blood draw.  The Supreme Court ruled that such warnings were overly coercive, causing a person to consent unlawfully to chemical testing.  The latest result in Pennsylvania is that PENNDOT has changed Form DL-26 to assist prosecutors, taking the most coercive language out of the form.  We are now in a situation where warrantless blood draws prior to July 2017 are not permitted into evidence, but those drawn after that date are generally admitted again by PA courts, once someone consents to a blood draw after being read the revised DL-26.  The one-year civil license suspension can still be imposed by PENNDOT.  However, refusing a blood draw no longer results in the most severe mandatory minimum sentence under Pennsylvania’s complicated DUI sentencing system, as it did prior to the Birchfield ruling.  Not all police departments can afford certified breathalyzer machines, so these departments routinely took suspects to the hospital for blood tests prior to Birchfield.  Getting a warrant before a blood draw takes time, which dissipates blood alcohol levels, so that was impractical for a short while.  For now, police officers are able to obtain consent for a blood draw again, as long as they follow the current rules.  But again, these rules are always evolving and we may not be far from the next important appellate court ruling.