The Supreme Court’s Ruling on Blood Evidence in DUI Cases and its Effect on Pennsylvania

On April 16, 2013 the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in Missouri v. McNeely regarding the admissibility of blood evidence in a DUI prosecution. Prior to this decision, approximately half of the states in the U.S. prohibited the taking of blood without a warrant. States such as Pennsylvania, however, did not require a search warrant under the theory that “exigent circumstances” would cause law enforcement to more than likely lose the evidence that they wished to obtain through the warrant. Exigent circumstance is a legal “term of art” that defines a situation that demands immediate action which may allow a person to avoid normal procedures.

The U.S. Constitution, through the 4th and 14th Amendment, prohibit our local law enforcement from searching or seizing our person without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. While the U.S. Constitution provides all citizens with protections against these intrusions on our privacy, Pennsylvania provides even more of protections. If you are charged with a crime in Pennsylvania you enjoy the protections of the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions. States cannot provide less protections than US Constitution but nothing prohibits them providing a higher level of protection.

An illegal search and seizure is frequently an issue in cases involving drugs, firearms, and alcohol. In these matters the admissibility of evidence which forms the basis for the charge is a critical issue normally resolved before trial through motions in limine by the defense. In DUI prosecutions the admissibility of blood evidence is necessary to establish the defendant’s intoxication. While many states, including Pennsylvania, allow the prosecution to proceed without scientific evidence and simply on the observations of the officer, scientific proof obviously strengthens their case and also allows them to seek higher penalties.

Prior to this recent Supreme Court decision, states such as Pennsylvania did not require a police officer to obtain a search warrant to draw a person’s blood. The arresting officer did not even have to provide a reason for the lack of the warrant and it was simply assumed that “exigent circumstances” eliminated a need for the document. The recent Supreme Court decision in Missouri v. McNeely, however, changes this assumption and actually now requires that the arresting officer demonstrate why he was unable to obtain the warrant prior to drawing the blood.

This decision will more than likely not dramatically change DUI prosecution’s in Pennsylvania provided that prosecutors address the lack of a warrant issue when questioning the arresting officer on direct examination. The testifying officer must provide adequate information as to the steps he took to obtain a warrant or why circumstances such as time of day or location prevented the application for the warrant. If the officer provides this testimony, the Court will more than likely find the blood evidence admissible.

This Supreme Court decision, however, does provide defense with an additional area of attack on cross examination which it previously did not possess in states like Pennsylvania. It is also important to point out that the Supreme Court did not clearly indicate specific steps that law enforcement had to satisfy to make a search warrant for a blood draw admissible. This lack of clarity allows a defense attorney to argue for a liberal interpretation which many state judges could find persuasive.

This Supreme Court decision will likely lead to a number of state trial court appeals which may eventually make their way up to the Supreme Court. This appellate process could take years and until these future cases, however, reach the Court defense attorneys should argue that the vague decision in Missouri v. McNeely should benefit their client. If you are charged with DUI, contact our office to discuss your case. We look forward to speaking with you!

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