On June 23, 2016 the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in the case Birchfield v. North Dakota. The U.S. Supreme Court in Birchfield held that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrest for drunk driving, but that it does NOT permit warrantless blood tests. This ruling has had a significant impact on Pennsylvania DUI cases filed within the last twelve (12) months.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Birchfield held for the first time that consent to obtain blood testing from a suspected DUI driver cannot be coerced using a threat of enhanced criminal penalties. In Pennsylvania, this was occurring using Penn DOT’s DL26 Implied Consent Form. After the Birchfield ruling, law enforcement officers could only obtain a sample of the Defendant’s blood with an authorized search warrant.
The Supreme Court in Birchfield also ruled that because blood tests “pierce the skin” and are “intrusive” it does effect an individual’s privacy interest under the Constitution. The Court further held that in addition to using the blood results to obtain a blood alcohol reading, the blood sample could be used for other purposes including obtaining a Defendant’s DNA. Because of the intrusive nature of a blood draw, the Supreme Court held that a warrantless blood test does not qualify as a “search incident to arrest”.
The practical implications of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Birchfield are that courts throughout the Commonwealth are granting Motions to Suppress the results of blood tests obtained using the old DL26 Consent Forms used prior to the Birchfield decision. This has resulted in charges being dropped or amended to a lesser offense of general impairment. In many cases this has resulted in DUI Defendants having no license suspension and no period of incarceration.
Not all of the District Attorneys in Pennsylvania have followed the Birchfield decision however most of the courts are now ruling in favor of the motorist when the issue is being challenged in court. Anyone charged with DUI in the last twelve (12) months should contact a qualified DUI attorney immediately.
The Birchfield decision is limited however to blood draws and has no effect on motorists who were subjected to breath tests. With respect to breath tests the U.S. Supreme Court held that because breath tests are significantly less intrusive then blood tests and in most cases amply serve law enforcement’s interests, a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving. No warrant is needed in those situations.