Blood / Breath Test Refusals — Enhanced Penalties Ruled Unconstitutional

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose enhanced criminal penalties on DUI defendants who “refuse” to submit to a chemical (blood or breath) test. Commonwealth v. Giron, 2017 WL 410267.

For years, the Pennsylvania DUI statute has provided that DUI defendants who “refuse” testing are automatically considered to be in the highest “tier” of DUI offenders. Pennsylvania DUI law has a three-tier system, based on a person’s blood alcohol content, providing for more severe penalties for persons testing in the higher tiers. Refusal cases have historically been automatically categorized in the highest tier subjecting those persons to enhanced penalties.

In Giron, the defendant was stopped by police after sideswiping a parked car. The officer testified that after questioning the defendant, he developed the opinion that the defendant may be under the influence of alcohol. The officer asked the defendant whether he would submit to a chemical test of his blood; the defendant refused.

The defendant in Giron was ultimately convicted and was sentenced as a highest-tier defendant because of the refusal. As a second-time DUI offender, the defendant received the third-tier mandatory minimum sentence of 90 days to five years of imprisonment (as opposed to a mandatory minimum sentence of five days to six months imprisonment for the lowest tier).

In finding the sentence to be unconstitutional, the Superior Court referenced the recent Unites States Supreme Court case Birchfield v. North Dakota,136 S.Ct. 2160 (2016). In Birchfield, the Supreme Court held that states cannot impose criminal penalties on persons who refuse to submit to a warrantless blood test because to do so violates a person’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Pennsylvania statutory scheme (unlike that of North Dakota) does not make it a crime to refuse to submit to a chemical test. However the Superior Court in Giron essentially expanded the reasoning of Birchfield to hold that the state may not increase the criminal penalties to a person who refuses such a test (which the Pennsylvania statutory scheme does do). Accordingly, under Giron, the Pennsylvania statute automatically considering a person who refuses to submit to such a test to be in the highest tier for DUI sentencing purposes violates his or her constitutional rights.

It is important to note that there are significant civil penalties to a chemical test refusal that are not affected by Birchfield or Giron. Specifically, a person who “refuses” a chemical test automatically incurs a minimum one-year driver’s license suspension.

It will certainly be interesting to watch how Pennsylvania courts and legislators respond to the Giron decision.