What is the Birchfield Ruling and How Does it Apply to Your DUI? | Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC

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What is the Birchfield Ruling and How Does it Apply to Your DUI?

If you’re pulled over for a suspected DUI in Pennsylvania, you may be asked to submit to a chemical DUI test. This typically involves providing a blood, breath, or urine sample, which will then be analyzed for your blood alcohol content (BAC) level. Chemical tests are generally more accurate than field sobriety tests, but some people argue that they are more invasive and unconstitutional. The debate on chemical testing in DUI cases is reflected in the United States Supreme Court case of Birchfield v. North Dakota (2016).

To learn more about chemical testing and how to defend yourself against a DUI conviction, continue reading below and contact our experienced Pittsburgh DUI lawyers at (412) 281-2146.

What is Birchfield v. North Dakota?

The debate on chemical testing in DUI cases is reflected in the United States Supreme Court case of Birchfield v. North Dakota (2016). This was actually a consolidation of three separate DUI cases involving subjects who were subjected to or threatened with criminal penalties for refusing breath or blood tests after their arrests. The United States Supreme Court eventually ruled that state authorities may not penalize a DUI suspect for refusing to submit to a blood test, but they can penalize suspects for refusing a breath test.

States apply Birchfield v. North Dakota‘s ruling differently based on their own interpretations. In Pennsylvania, the courts have limited the protections offered by the Birchfield ruling, making many DUI cases more difficult for those who were arrested.

When Are Chemical DUI Tests Constitutional?

The decision of Birchfield is based on the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. According to earlier Supreme Court rulings, both blood and breath tests are considered “searches,” so they must be done in accordance with the Fourth Amendment. Here are examples of when Pittsburgh police officers may legally take a blood or breath sample of a DUI suspect, on account of their search being reasonable:

  • The police have a warrant from a judge or magistrate issued upon probable cause that describes the place to be searched and the things likely to be found
  • The search concerns only the suspect’s vehicle, which has been pulled over for a valid reason, and the police have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains illegal contraband or evidence of a crime
  • The suspect has given consent to the search
  • The suspect has been legally arrested, and the search only concerns the suspect’s person
  • The police face emergency circumstances that justify a warrantless search

In the case of Missouri v. McNeely (2013), the U.S. Supreme Court held that just because your blood alcohol content (BAC) level is going down doesn’t necessarily mean the police can take a blood sample from you without a warrant or your consent. However, in Birchfield v. North Dakota, the Supreme Court addressed other justifications for testing drunk-driving suspects without a warrant. Birchfield considered whether blood or breath tests fit into the category of constitutionally permissible “searches incident to arrest,” which don’t require your consent or a warrant.

Birchfield Differentiates Between Breath & Blood Tests

It’s very important for police to be aware of your rights when they stop you for a suspected traffic violation. Mistakes or malicious actions on their behalf can have a serious impact on your future. The U.S. Supreme Court case of Birchfield v. North Dakota offered a strong legal precedent that has been used by many people arrested for a suspected DUI.

However, it established the following differences between blood tests and breath tests:

  • Breath tests: These less invasive tests do not implicate major privacy concerns, so requiring them is reasonable when checking a driver for intoxication. Police officers do not need a court-issued warrant. Therefore, a person can be arrested and prosecuted based on the results of a breath test or refusing one.
  • Blood tests: These are much more invasive, and therefore, a person has the right to refuse a warrantless blood draw when pulled over for a DUI. This is in part due to the fact that police have less invasive sobriety tests (including breath tests) that they can use without a warrant.

To determine whether blood and breath tests could be included in a warrantless police search, the court needed to weigh your right to privacy against the state’s interest in keeping the roads safe from drunk drivers. The court’s ruling in Birchfield was essentially a compromise: since a breathalyzer test is not particularly intrusive, the state’s interest in public safety outweighs your right to privacy. But when it comes to blood tests, your right to privacy is more important than the state’s interest in keeping the roads clear of drunk drivers.

Pennsylvania’s Limitations on the Birchfield Ruling

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recently revisited Birchfield and its protections offered to those arrested for DUI. Specifically, the court has addressed the ability to retroactively apply Birchfield to a DUI charge in our state. The court then ruled that Birchfield did not provide a substantive guarantee that protected arrested defendants from conviction after a warrantless blood test. Since Birchfield was found to not be a constitutional guarantee, it cannot be retroactively applied to all DUI cases that involve blood tests.

Instead, Birchfield has been found to establish a procedural requirement for police investigating DUIs. This means that blood tests must either have a warrant, or they must be justifiable under the circumstances of the sobriety stop. If the police properly follow the procedural requirements set forth in this decision, an arrest can be legitimate. Unfortunately for some arrested for DUI, our state’s Supreme Court does not consider them to have a constitutional guarantee against blood tests that do not have a court-issued warrant.

How Might Birchfield Affect My Pittsburgh DUI Case?

The case of Birchfield will generally not affect your DUI case because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania only imposes an administrative penalty for refusing blood tests, as opposed to the criminal penalties that the Supreme Court now explicitly prohibits. But if a police officer coerces you into submitting to a blood test by threatening you with criminal sanctions and you decide to submit to the blood test because of these threats, Birchfield mandates that the evidence of your blood test be excluded from your DUI case.

Defenses Against a DUI Charge in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s limitations to Birchfield give prosecutors more flexibility as they build a case to convict you of DUI. However, you still have constitutional rights that protect you from unfair police stops and searches. Our Pittsburgh defense attorneys have represented many people after arrest, and we know how to investigate every detail of the prosecutor’s case against you.

Even though Birchfield has been limited, you can still successfully seek a dismissal of your charges due to an inappropriate police search. Winning your case can depend on one or several of the following arguments:

  • Police made errors in testing your sobriety: Law enforcement officers sometimes make mistakes when conducting roadside sobriety tests such as stop-and-turn tests or horizontal eye gaze exams. Police can also fail to properly use breathalyzer machines.
  • Police violated your privacy with a blood test: Even though the limitations on Birchfield have come into effect, the police cannot simply demand a blood test without proper cause. Your fourth amendment rights can be violated with an unnecessary blood test.
  • Evidence collected was improperly handled: Police or lab technicians often make mistakes when handling a suspect’s blood or urine samples. This can result in unfair test results that greatly harm the defendant.

Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys LLC Can Help After A DUI Arrest

It’s important for you to have a lawyer who understands Pennsylvania law and how the courts constantly change their views on our constitutional rights. While recent limitations on Birchfield can make it more difficult to defend a DUI case, there are still many options to protect your rights and your future. Our lawyers have investigated many arrests in the Pittsburgh area. We understand how each case is different, and how police errors or abuse can greatly harm an innocent defendant. Do not hesitate to contact professional legal counsel after you or a loved one have been arrested.

Contact Worgul, Sarna & Ness, Criminal Defense Attorneys, LLC to speak with a knowledgeable Pittsburgh DUI defense lawyer. You can call our office at (412) 281-2146 or fill out our online contact form.