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  • By: Kevin Leckerman, Esq.
  • Published: December 7, 2016
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Fourth of July weekend is considered the third most deadliest period of the year involving drunken-driving fatalities. This fourth of July weekend, police across Pennsylvania have been adjusting to new rules and standards to pursue DUI cases. These changes have been necessitated by a recent ruling passed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Law enforcement authorities throughout Pennsylvania remained on guard during the fourth of July holiday weekend to make sure that drunken drivers are kept off roads.

According to Joseph Gleason, Chief of the West Goshen Police Department in Chester County, his officers began adjusting to the new standards immediately. Based on the ruling, they started fine-tuning the procedures they followed when investigating DUI cases and making arrests. According to Gleason, his officers will actively pursue drunken drivers and they are going to be out there patrolling to keep these people off the streets.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court placed new limits on state laws, making it a crime for motorists to refuse alcohol tests if they are suspected to be driving under the influence. Moreover, the police must obtain a search warrant before the drivers are required to take blood alcohol tests, the justices ruled. However, no search warrant is required for breath tests, as breath tests are considered less intrusive by the court.

The ruling came based on three cases in which drivers challenged the so-called implied consent laws in Minnesota and North Dakota as violating the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The State supreme courts had upheld the laws.

In all 50 states, drivers can have their licenses revoked for refusing to submit to alcohol testing. However, the high court’s ruling affects laws in 11 states, including Pennsylvania, that go further imposing criminal penalties for such refusals. The court’s decision already has an impact on how DUI cases are prosecuted.

Police departments in the Philadelphia area, Chester County, Delaware County and Montgomery County have the highest rate of DUI arrests among the state. According to the state police’s Uniform Crime Reporting System, a total of 2,923 arrests were reported in 2014 in Montgomery County, ranking as the highest number of DUI arrests, followed by 1,983 arrests in Chester County, and 1,930 arrests in Delaware County.

A Chester County man pleaded guilty Wednesday to a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol. He was also driving under the influence of drugs, but the latter criminal count was withdrawn by the prosecution as police were able to make out those charges based on a blood test.

According to Common Pleas Judge Anthony Sarcione, he is getting the benefit of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in accepting his guilty plea, referring to the case Birchfield v. North Dakota.

In other DUI cases, defense attorneys have begin asking judges in Chester County to continue their clients’ cases in order to determine whether the evidence against them comes solely from a blood test, or whether other evidence is involved such as admission of guilt, or an officer’s testimony.

The decision will have a short-term impact on DUI cases that are currently in the system. Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan said, “We will address those cases depending on the unique facts of each case. Where the case used a breath test, there will be no impact. Where the case used a blood test, the result will depend on whether the police officer obtained consent via a general consent.” Hogan also said that there is a possibility that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court may adopt a, ‘good faith exception’ similar to federal law, where the results are admissible because the police acted in good faith based on then-current laws.

Previously, drivers suspected of being under the influence were subject to field sobriety tests. Police also looked for on-scene evidence to determine intoxication, such as bloodshot eyes, odor of alcohol, slurred speech and so on. In other cases, drivers were administered a portable breath test to determine their blood alcohol level. Many drivers were also taken to a nearby hospital for a blood draw, and if their BAC was above the legal limit of 0.08%, the driver would be charge with DUI. The arresting officer would usually read a warning to the driver, informing them that they would face heightened penalties if they refused to a blood draw.

Hogan also stated that the decision has no impact on the general impairment charge, referring to the officers’ own opinion as to whether a driver could safely operate a motor vehicle. “That charge is always available to law enforcement,” he said.

Hogan further stated that blood tests are important in many cases as they provide final confirming piece of evidence. They also help catch drivers who have been using drugs. “Finally, the blood tests tie directly into some of the (standards) used to determine penalties,” he said.

“The Chester County District Attorney’s Office has conferred with other District Attorneys, municipal police departments, the Pennsylvania State Police, and PennDOT on this issue. We have reached a general consensus and this will be the approach going forward from most law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania. The DAO has issued guidance to all law enforcement agencies in Chester County about our approach to this issue.

“From a bigger picture, we still have people getting killed by drunken drivers in Chester County and throughout the United States. We don’t need more legal loopholes for drunken drivers. We need tougher drunken driving laws to keep our families safe, especially in the case of repeat offenders,” said Hogan.

“This decision will make DUI enforcement in Chester County more difficult,” he opined. “But as always, Chester County law enforcement will work together to keep our county safe from drunken drivers.”

Supporters of stringent drunken driving laws had mixed feelings about the court’s decision in this case nationally.

The general counsel for Mother’s Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), Adam Vanek, said that his organization was “happy that the Supreme Court found breath test refusals are no longer being considered on a case by case basis in court.” He also said that MADD encourages states to have good refusal laws and punishments. According to Vanek, the breath test is a tool that prevents suspected drunken drivers from continuing to drive and putting others in harm. However, MADD is not happy about the ruling according to Vanek. The ruling to obtain a search warrant for blood testing will encourage states to improve its due process to expedite a warrant. Although it will help states with the process, the process will be unique for each state. He also stated that the Supreme Court left the ruling for special circumstances as a possible option for law enforcement to use.

“Our goal here is for no more victims,” said Vanek.

According to Gleason, quite a few police departments still use breathalyzer machines instead of blood tests. “We haven’t used those in 20 to 25 years,” he said.

According to Anthony Giaimo, who is the Tredyffrin Police Superintendent and head of the Chester County Police Chiefs Association, departments across the county would necessarily adjust to the new rules.

“Obviously, for the Chester County Chiefs of Police Association, at any point when we are given more challenges we adapt,” said Giaimo. “While there is some disappointment (with the court’s ruling), we understand that this is the legal process that we are part of. We work within that process.”


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