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Justices to Mull Good-Faith Exception in 'Birchfield' Suppression Case

Drunk driving. Credit: Marian Weyo/Shutterstock.com

Credit: Marian Weyo/Shutterstock.com

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments over whether, due to the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2016 ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota, blood alcohol test results should have been suppressed in the case of a fatal accident caused by an alleged drunken driver.

In Birchfield, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not permit warrantless blood tests in drunken driving arrests and outlawed criminal penalties for refusing to submit to blood draws.

In its April 10 allocatur grant for Commonwealth v. Wolfel, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to consider: "Whether the Superior Court of Pennsylvania disregarded the controlling authority of Birchfield v. North Dakota, ... by reversing the trial court’s decision suppressing the results of the testing of petitioner’s blood."

According to the Superior Court's December 2017 opinion, written by Senior Judge John Musmanno, Kaitlyn Wolfel was arrested in 2014 for suspicion of DUI after she ran over two pedestrians with her truck, seriously injuring one and killing the other.

At the scene, a state trooper administered a field sobriety test in which Wolfel performed poorly, according to Musmanno. She also failed a breath test. After her arrest she was transported to a local Cameron County hospital for a blood test.

There, a trooper read Wolfel implied consent warnings, contained on the Pennsylvania State Police DL-26 form, after which Wolfel consented to the test, Musmanno said. She was then charged with drunken vehicular homicide; aggravated assault by vehicle while DUI; DUI of alcohol or controlled substance; DUI of alcohol or controlled substance with a blood-alcohol content of 0.178 percent; DUI of alcohol or controlled substance; and careless driving.

Prior to trial, Wolfel sought to suppress the blood test evidence citing the Birchfield decision. The suppression court granted her motion, barring all evidence gathered from the test.

Prosecutors appealed the decision, arguing the court erred in suppressing the evidence based on Birchfield. They argued that because the case was not handed down until 2016, the warnings in the DL-26 form presented to Wolfel, which included language threatening criminal penalties for refusing a blood test, were valid at the time.

"The Birchfield court held that, although implied-consent laws that impose civil penalties and evidentiary consequences for refusing to consent are constitutional, implied-consent laws that impose criminal penalties for refusing to consent to a blood test are unconstitutional because 'motorists cannot be deemed to have consented to submit to a blood test on pain of committing a criminal offense,'" Musmanno said.

The judge continued, "Therefore, in the wake of Birchfield, the DL-26 form warnings read to Wolfel were partially incorrect, insofar as they advised her that she faced additional charges and/or enhanced penalties if she refused the blood draw. Notwithstanding the issuance of Birchfield, the commonwealth maintains that the results of Wolfel’s blood test withstand suppression since the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies in this case."

Musmanno agreed with the state's argument.

"Police officers in Pennsylvania had no reason to believe that the Supreme Court of the United States would render the statute at issue unconstitutional in Birchfield," Musmanno said. "As such, the blood draw evidence was admissible under the good-faith exception to the Fourth Amendment, the only ground raised for suppression by Wolfel. Accordingly, we conclude that the suppression court erred by granting Wolfel’s suppression Motion. We therefore reverse the suppression court’s order."

Gary Knaresboro represents Wolfel. "I'm happy the motion was granted, it's an issue that affects other cases and I really think we need a definitive answer on it."

"This one is truly a Birchfield issue. There was no search warrant to take the blood," he continued.

The state Office of Attorney General did not respond to a request for comment.

Wolfel is far from the first Birchfield issue the state Supreme Court has tackled.

Last July, the court granted allocatur in Commonwealth v. Hays to decide whether Birchfield should apply to all cases not yet final when the decision was rendered.

In January, the court ruled in Commonwealth v. Monarch that Birchfield invalidated an enhanced sentence handed down to an allegedly intoxicated driver who refused a blood draw.

And earlier this month, the justices heard arguments in Pittsburgh in Commonwealth v. Olson over whether Birchfield should be applied retroactively to cases pending on collateral appeal.

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