In a brand new decision, a panel of three judges in the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that a trial judge may not impose a mandatory minimum sentence based on a DUI defendant’s refusal to submit to a warrantless blood test.
This past summer the United States Supreme Court concluded that a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a warrantless search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving. Birchfield v. North Dakota. In Birchfield, the court held that blood tests taken pursuant to implied consent laws violate federal constitutional provisions.
Birchfield was a U.S. Supreme Court case, and is finally starting to trickle down to Pennsylvania’s state court opinions. We have been working out lots of DUI cases to avoid otherwise applicable mandatory minimum sentences, but now for the first time a statewide appellate court has held that mandatory minimum sentences may not be imposed based upon refusal of a blood test. In Commonwealth v. Kohli, the defendant was charged and convicted of one count of DUI. The jury also found that he refused to submit to a blood test. After he was found guilty, the applicable mandatory minimum, which provides for a minimum sentence of at least one year in prison, was imposed based upon the defendant’s prior convictions and his failure to consent to a blood test. The Superior Court reversed that sentence holding that “such a sentence runs afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota.”
While the Court’s holding in Kohli is not officially reported and therefore not precedential, it may prompt judges to decline to impose mandatory minimums for blood test refusal cases. Of course, one possibility is that sentencing judges will expressly disavow the applicable mandatory minimum, consider the facts, and then impose a discretionary sentence that is nearly identical to the otherwise applicable mandatory minimum sentence. This is something both prosecutors and defendants are going to have to keep in mind when negotiating these types of cases. If you or someone you know has been charged with a DUI, it is important to set up a consultation meeting with an experienced attorney to strategize and discuss how the changing DUI laws can help your case.