“In absence of a warrant or exigent circumstances justifying a search, a defendant who refuses to provide a blood sample when requested by police [for suspicion of DUI] is not subject to enhanced penalties” (Commonwealth v. Giron). The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that Giron, who was found guilty of DUI, was sentenced illegally because he was subject to enhanced penalties for refusing to provide a blood sample.
Recently, the United States Supreme Court held that states cannot impose criminal penalties upon individuals who refuse to submit to a warrantless blood test because those penalties violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures (Birchfield v. North Dakota). Birchfield was a consolidation of three separate, but similar, cases pertaining to testing refusals in DUI cases. The court reaffirmed the notion that taking one’s blood constituted a search and is therefore governed by the Fourth Amendment. As such, an individual may not be “searched” without a warrant except under exigent circumstances.
To understand how the Birchfield decision impacts Pennsylvania DUI cases you must first understand Pennsylvania’s DUI laws. Pennsylvania law prescribes a three-tier DUI statutory scheme which penalizes drivers with higher levels of alcohol in their blood more severely than drivers with lower blood alcohol levels. Pennsylvania law contains a section specifically addressing DUI penalties (75 Pa.C.S. §3804). Not only does this section set forth punishments based on an individual’s blood alcohol level, it further addresses punishment for individuals who refuse a blood test and are convicted of DUI. This section specifically punishes those individuals who refuse a blood sample at the same level as those who are convicted of the highest rate of alcohol.
With Birchfield’s holding impacting how courts can sentence an individual found guilty of a DUI with a blood test refusal, the Superior Court was left to determine if Giron was sentenced illegally.
On February 12, 2015 police witnesses Giron’s vehicle sideswipe a legally parked car. A traffic stop was initiated and when Giron rolled down his car window, police immediately detected a strong odor of alcohol from the vehicle. Police also noticed Giron’s eyes were red and glassy, his speech was slurred and he had difficulty standing still. Police arrested Giron for suspicion of driving under the influence and requested a blood sample; however, Giron refused. Giron was convicted of second offense DUI – general impairment (refusal), careless driving, driving without a license, and fleeing the scene of an accident. He was sentenced to 90 days to 5 years’ imprisonment – the mandatory minimum sentence for a second offense DUI where the blood test if refused.
The Superior Court found that Giron’s sentence was illegal since his sentence was enhanced due to his exercise of a constitutional right – refusal of the blood test. Since he was subjected to enhanced penalties for refusing to provide blood, his sentence was illegal pursuant to Birchfield.
So where does this leave Pennsylvania’s DUI laws? The Superior Court ultimately held that an individual cannot be sentenced to the mandatory minimum penalty if that person refused to provide a blood sample. Instead, such a person can only be sentenced to the equivalent of the general impairment section – which carries a lesser mandatory minimum penalty. With this change in the DUI laws it is important to discuss any DUI charges with a competent lawyer to receive the best possible outcome. For more information about cases relating to driving under the influence visit our DUI page.