Birchfield Ruling Applies to Drug Cases Too

Filed under: DUI by Contributor @ August 1, 2017

On July 11, 2017, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ruled that the United State’s Supreme Court ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota, that blood cannot be taken without a warrant or consent, applies to both alcohol and drug-related DUI’s.

In Birchfield v. North Dakota, following a car accident the driver (Birchfield) failed numerous field sobriety and breath tests and was arrest. Upon his arrest the driver refused to consent to a chemical test and, consequently, the driver was charged with a misdemeanor for violating state law due to his refusal to consent to a chemical test. Birchfield and three other men charged with violating the North Dakota statute that criminalized refusing to submit to a chemical test challenged the state’s law, arguing that it violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. On appeal from the Supreme Courts of North Dakota and Minnesota, the Supreme Court of the United States held that state statutes cannot criminalize the refusal to submit to a blood test absent a warrant. Explaining their decision, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breathalyzer tests following an arrest for drunk driving because they are minimally intrusive and do not implicate significant privacy concerns, however, chemical tests involving blood draws are significantly more invasive and may be used to discover information beyond the scope of blood alcohol content.

Prior to the Superior Court ruling on July 11, 2017, the court had not yet addressed Birchfield’s applicability to drug-related DUI investigations nor had it ruled whether warrantless blood tests are permissible in these instances.

In Commonwealth v. Ennels , police were called to the scene of a car accident allegedly involving John Ennels. Ennels allegedly attempted to flee the scene but was prevented by officers. Shortly thereafter, Ennels was removed from the vehicle and a partially-smoked marijuana cigarette was discovered inside of the vehicle. Upon this discovery, Ennels was arrested for DUI and was taken to St. Joseph’s Medical Center where he was asked to submit to a blood draw and was read the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s DL-26 form. The form informed him that if he refused the blood draw, he would be subject to additional criminal penalties. The penalties listed in the form included that refusal would result in a minimum of 72 hours in jail and a $1,000 fine and a maximum of five (5) years in jail and a $10,000 fine. Ennels then signed the DL-26 form and agreed to the blood draw for chemical blood testing. Following charges of DUI- controlled substance and DUI- general impairment, Ennel filed a motion to suppress the results of the blood test. After the trial court granted his motion and suppressed the blood test results, the Commonwealth appealed to the Superior Court.

On appeal, the Prosecutors argued that Birchfield has “limited applicability to drug-related DUI prosecutions” because breathalyzer tests are unable to determine drug use and that Ennels’ consent to the blood test was voluntary . The Superior Court disagreed with the Commonwealth and found that Ennels’ consent was involuntary because consent is only voluntary if it is based on possible civil/evidentiary reasoning rather than threatened criminal penalties. Further, the court found that when Ennels was told that he would face a variety of criminal consequences if he refused, the form failed to indicate the penalties for DUI of a controlled substance or that the possible increased penalties were only applicable to individuals convicted of DUI due to alcohol. As a result, despite the inflated penalties only applying to DUI based on alcohol consumption, a reasonable person in Ennels’ position would have understood the increased/severe penalties to apply regardless of which offense he was convicted of. Additionally, the Superior Court echoed the sentiments articulated in Birchfield, finding that blood tests are considerably more intrusive than breathalyzer tests and obtaining a blood draw without consent or a warrant under these circumstances would violate a suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights.

To recap, the Superior Court ruled that the police must obtain a warrant for a blood test. If a warrant is not possible due to time constraints, the police may pursue a blood test without a warrant under the “exigency exception” to the Fourth Amendment. The exigency exception is permissible when the police have probable cause for a search or seizure but lack sufficient time to obtain a warrant. Moreover, the court explained that regardless of the type of substance believed to have been affecting the abilities of a driver arrested for DUI, Birchfield is applicable and requires that the blood draw consent be voluntary and not due to the threat of criminal consequences. As a result, the Superior Court has now explicitly indicated that regardless of the suspected substance believed to be affecting a DUI arrestee, Birchfield is applicable and requires the blood test be permitted and necessitated by a valid warrant, case-specific exigency, or by voluntary and un-coerced consent.

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