DUI; Refusal of Blood Test as Evidence of Guilt

Com. v. Bell, 167 A.3d 744 (Pa. Super. 2017), allocatur granted Apr. 5, 2018, appeal docket 11 MAP 2018

Thomas Bell was arrested for driving under the influence after failing field sobriety and breath tests. Bell refused to consent to blood testing, and was charged with DUI—general impairment (75 Pa. C.S. § 3802(a)(1)). In accordance with Section 1547(e) of the implied consent law, Bell’s refusal to consent to blood testing was admitted as evidence of guilt at trial. Bell was convicted of the DUI charged, but filed a motion for reconsideration arguing that evidence of his refusal to submit to a blood test was inadmissible at trial.

The trial court granted Bell’s motion for a new trial, finding that admission of Bell’s refusal into evidence at trial violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. The trial court based its decision on the US Supreme Court decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota, a familiar basis for other cases currently pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In Birchfield, the Supreme Court found that implied consent laws cannot deem motorists to have given consent to criminal penalties upon refusal to submit to chemical testing.

The Commonwealth appealed, arguing that it was constitutionally permissible for the prosecution to introduce evidence of Bell’s refusal to consent to a warrantless blood test at his trial on DUI charges to show consciousness of guilt. Bell maintained that the admission of the refusal evidence penalized him for exercising a constitutional right as recognized in Birchfield.

The Superior Court disagreed with the trial court’s interpretation of Birchfield, reasoning that the evidentiary consequence of a blood test refusal is a civil penalty, not the criminal penalty prohibited by Birchfield.  Citing to the US Supreme Court decision in South Dakota v. Neville, 459 U.S. 553 (1983), the Superior Court noted that right to refuse a blood or breath test is not one of “constitutional dimension” but rather is “simply a matter of grace bestowed by the [state] legislature.” Reversing the trial court decision, the Superior Court concluded it is constitutionally permissible to deem motorists, like Bell, to have consented to the specific provision of Pennsylvania’s Implied Consent Law that sets forth evidentiary consequences for the refusal of chemical testing upon a lawful arrest for DUI.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted allocatur on the following issue:

Whether §1547(e) of the Vehicle Code is violative of Article 1 Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution to the extent that it permits evidence of an arrestee’s refusal to submit a sample of blood for testing without a search warrant as proof of consciousness of guilt at the arrestee’s trial on a charge of DUI?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker