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Pennsylvania Supreme Court to Rule on Whether a Suspect’s Refusal to Submit to Testing is Admissible as Evidence of Guilt

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota continues to affect DUI law throughout the country. The Birchfield ruling stated, among other things, that DUI suspects who refused to submit to a blood test without a warrant could not be subject to increased criminal penalties for their refusal. Last month, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted an appeal on the narrow issue of whether it is unconstitutional to introduce evidence of a suspect’s refusal to submit to a warrantless blood test at trial as evidence of the suspect’s guilt. While the court’s ruling will only be applicable in Pennsylvania, it is anticipated it will be persuasive for courts in other states ruling on the same issue, and may impact the prosecution of DUI cases throughout the country, including Illinois DUI cases.

blood test

In Commonwealth v. Bell, the suspect was detained for inadequately illuminated headlights. On approaching the suspect’s vehicle the officer observed the suspect had glassy and bloodshot eyes, and an odor of alcohol. The suspect subsequently admitted he consumed four beers. The officer then administered a field sobriety test, which the suspect failed, and a Breathalyzer test, which indicated the suspect had a blood alcohol concentration of .127%. The suspect was arrested for DUI and taken to a hospital for testing of his blood alcohol content. After the suspect was read the chemical testing warnings, however, he refused to submit to a blood test.

The suspect was charged with DUI. Prior to his trial he filed a motion to dismiss the charge, arguing he had a constitutional right to refuse to submit to the blood test, and therefore, his refusal should not be admitted into evidence. The suspect’s motion was denied and the prosecution was permitted to introduce evidence of the suspect’s refusal to submit to the blood test. The suspect was subsequently convicted of DUI.

Following his conviction, the suspect filed a motion for reconsideration of his motion to dismiss, arguing that, pursuant to Birchfield, implied consent laws which imposed criminal penalties on motorists for refusing to submit to blood tests were improper, and as such, any testimony regarding his refusal should have not been admitted into evidence at trial. The trial court granted the suspect’s motion and ordered a new trial where testimony regarding the suspect’s refusal to undergo a blood test could not be introduced into evidence. The Commonwealth appealed, arguing the introduction of evidence regarding the suspect’s refusal to submit to testing as evidence of guilt did not violate his constitutional rights.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the Commonwealth, holding that the constitution did not grant the suspect the right to refuse a warrantless blood test. The court relied upon South Dakota v. Neville, a United States Supreme Court case, which found a suspect’s right to refuse chemical testing was a right created by state legislature, and not the constitution. Therefore the introduction of evidence of a suspect’s refusal did not violate any constitutional rights. The court also noted a prior Pennsylvania case, Commonwealth v. Graham, which declined to find the right to refuse a warrantless blood test to be a constitutional right. As such, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania found allowing the prosecution to present evidence of the suspect’s refusal to submit to a blood test at trial did not violate the suspect’s rights.

The court clarified that Birchfield only held that a suspect could not be subjected to increased criminal penalties for refusing to submit to a blood test, not that the constitution granted a suspect the right to refuse any chemical testing. Additionally, the court noted that while Birchfield barred increased criminal penalties for refusal, it supported imposing evidentiary and civil penalties on suspects who refused to undergo chemical testing.

The issue of whether a DUI suspect has a constitutional right to refuse warrantless blood testing has not been ruled upon by the Illinois court. Illinois, like many states, is an implied-consent jurisdiction. As such, all licensees are considered to consent to chemical testing and may have their license suspended if they refuse consent. The Illinois implied consent statute was challenged in Gaede v. Illinois. In Gaede, the suspect refused to submit to a breath test, his refusal was entered into evidence against him at trial, and the suspect was sentenced to two years of court supervision. The suspect petitioned for appeal, arguing he had a constitutional right to refuse chemical testing. The suspect’s petition for appeal was denied, however, and the issue of whether an Illinois DUI suspect has a constitutional right to refuse chemical testing remains undecided. The Pennsylvania Supreme court ruling in Commonwealth v. Bell, however, may be the impetus for suspects in other states to address this issue, including Illinois.

If you are charged with a DUI and you refused to submit to a blood test, it is in your best interest to meet with a knowledgeable Illinois DUI attorney as soon as possible to ensure your rights are protected. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides dedicated representation to individuals throughout Illinois. Contact our office at 217.525.0520, to schedule a consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Illinois DUI Suspect Acquitted After Refusing to Take Roadside Sobriety or Breathalyzer Tests Illinois DUI Lawyer Blog, May 30, 2018.

Illinois Appeals Court Holds Officer Need Not Readvise DUI Defendant of Implied Consent Law Before Blood Test Illinois DUI Lawyer Blog, April 2, 2018.

Georgia Supreme Court Rules Officer Cannot Compel Breath Tests on DUI Suspects Illinois DUI Lawyer Blog, January 3, 2018.