A law was recently passed by the Supreme Court forcing police officers to have a warrant to conduct blood alcohol tests after pulling an individual over for a suspected DUI. The interpretation of this law is worrisome to PA residents because those who have previously had a blood test, and therefore were charged, might now want to appeal that.
In the weeks following a Supreme Court ruling that police need warrants to get blood alcohol tests on people stopped for driving under the influence, law enforcement authorities remain uncertain of its impact.
From the state to local levels, authorities are still sorting out the June 23 ruling, which followed appeals by three people who had been arrested for driving under the influence.
The people, in North Dakota and Minnesota, submitted to blood tests after being told they faced criminal penalties if they refused.
The ruling bars police from levying charges or threatening to charge those who refuse a blood test.
Police do not need warrants for breath tests, which can be given on the spot. Refusing to take a breath test can result in a criminal penalty.
In Pennsylvania, people who refuse the blood tests aren’t charged for that, but do face steeper penalties if they are convicted, including losing their licenses for a year.
For Philip Gelso, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the ruling makes Constitutional sense.
“The ruling makes it clear that you need a search warrant. The bottom line is that it’s no different from your house. To get into your house, (police) need a search warrant and probable cause. It’s the Fourth Amendment protection (against unreasonable searches and seizures),” he said.
Law authorities are working to better understand the ruling.
“The department is analyzing the ruling and our stations throughout the commonwealth continue to work with the respective county district attorneys to follow guidance provided as a result of the ruling,” said state police Cpl. Adam Reed.
In Carbon County, District Attorney Jean A. Engler is proceeding with caution.
“We’re waiting to get some guidance statewide so all of the counties can address this in a uniform manner,” she said.
Engler has sent letters to police chiefs who have asked for guidance, “but I’m careful to say this is until further notice.”
Both Schuylkill County District Attorney Christine A. Holman and Engler are concerned the ruling will burden police and district judges, and predict a tsunami of appeals from people who contend they were coerced into the tests.
Engler is concerned the ruling may trigger a tidal wave of appeals of drunk driving convictions.
“We’re certainly going to contest the retroactivity, she said. “That could affect hundreds of thousands of cases.”
She also said appeals to a higher court are likely.
“Unfortunately, it will be awhile until we get a review by an appellate court in Pennsylvania,” Engler said.
“One of our judges will make a decision, and the aggrieved party will file an appeal. But that could take six month to a year,” she said.
Holman has sent instructions on the ruling to police departments. The instructions state the ruling makes it illegal to impose or threaten to impose penalties for refusal to submit to a blood alcohol test, absent a warrant or an emergency situation.
Breath tests are allowed without warrants, and departments that have the machines should use them.
If police suspect a driver is under the influence of drugs, and that person refuses a blood test, police can call in a Drug Recognition Expert, the instructions state.
There are 156 drug recognition experts in Pennsylvania, most of them at state police barracks.
Or, police can seek a warrant, or note the emergency situation that does not allow for the time needed to get a warrant.
Flood of hearings
The reasons must be stated in affidavits of probable cause and written reports.
“At this time, it is unclear what effects this decision will have upon pending DUI charges,” Holman notes on the instructions. “We are continuing to analyze this decision and confer with other prosecuting agencies to anticipate the extent of the repercussions this decision will have upon Pennsylvania DUI law.”
She warns of a “flood of suppression hearings” for DUI cases in the wake of the ruling.
However, she warns people the ruling doesn’t give them a pass to drive under the influence.
“We’re going to be relying heavily on DREs and breath tests,” Holman said. “If they are pulled over, they are going to be detained longer than they would have been previously if they refuse a test.”
Chief Detective Dolly Malec said there has been a large increase in the numbers of drugged driving cases that may require a drug expert if the blood test is refused.
Holman also said district judges have called her, worried about a possible tidal wave of warrant requests.
The requests are liable to be a headache for district judges who may be hauled out of bed at 3 a.m. to type up a warrant.