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COMMONWEALTH v. MODICH (03/31/75)

SUPERIOR COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: March 31, 1975.

COMMONWEALTH
v.
MODICH, APPELLANT

Appeal from judgment of sentence of Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County, No. 132 of 1973, in case of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Frank Modich, Jr.

COUNSEL

Allen N. Brunwasser, for appellant.

Joseph M. Stanichak, Assistant District Attorney, with him Joseph S. Walko, District Attorney, for Commonwealth, appellee.

Watkins, P. J., Jacobs, Hoffman, Cercone, Price, Van der Voort, and Spaeth, JJ. Opinion by Hoffman, J. Price and Van der Voort, JJ., dissent.

Author: Hoffman

[ 233 Pa. Super. Page 94]

Appellant contends that the results of a chemical breath test, obtained as the fruit of an illegal arrest, were improperly introduced into evidence at his trial for driving while under the influence of alcohol.

At approximately 10 o'clock on the night of January 20, 1973, while driving through Beaver Borough, appellant became involved in an automobile accident with a truck driven by one Frank Legnine. Two Beaver police officers, Stephen Kasely and Nick Opsanic, arrived at the scene. Officer Kasely testified that when he first observed appellant, he had his head inside and his feet outside his car. Neither officer actually observed appellant driving the car. Appellant came over to Kasely and demanded that the other driver be arrested. According to Kasely, appellant "smelled of liquor," "had an unsteady gait," and "was very combative." Kasely testified that appellant "tried to start an argument with the truck driver [Legnine] three or four times." Officer Opsanic testified that appellant repeatedly harassed the two officers and interfered with their efforts to investigate the accident and clear up traffic. Officer Kasely testified that the resulting "commotion" attracted a number of bystanders. At approximately 10:30, Officer Kasely placed appellant under arrest for disorderly conduct and drunken driving, and gave appellant his Miranda warnings. After the officers cleared up the traffic jam, they took appellant to the Beaver police station, where he was again advised of his Miranda rights. At the police station, appellant was unwilling to take a chemical breath test without talking to his attorney. Appellant's attorney advised him, over the telephone, that if he refused to take a breath test, his license would be suspended. Appellant then took the test.

On February 21, 1973, appellant was convicted by a magistrate of disorderly conduct under a Beaver Borough ordinance, fined thirty dollars plus costs, and

[ 233 Pa. Super. Page 95]

    bound over to a grand jury on charges of drunken driving*fn1 and of assault and battery (which Legnine alleged appellant had committed against him). On May 8, 1973, the grand jury indicted appellant on these two charges. On June 5, 1973, the court below denied appellant's motion to suppress the admission of the results of the breath test into evidence. On June 8, 1973, a jury returned a verdict of guilty on the drunken driving charge, but acquitted appellant of the assault and battery charge. Post-trial motions were denied. This appeal followed.

The Vehicle Code, Act of April 29, 1959, P.L. 58, § 624.1, added July 28, 1961, P.L. 918, § 1, as amended, 75 P.S. § 624.1, provides that "(a) [a]ny person who operates a motor vehicle . . . in this Commonwealth, shall be deemed to have given his consent to a chemical test of his breath, for the purpose of determining the alcoholic content of his blood: Provided, That the test is administered by qualified personnel and with equipment approved by the secretary at the direction of a police officer having reasonable grounds to believe the person to have been driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor . . . . If any person is placed under arrest and charged with the operation of a motor vehicle. . . while under the influence of intoxicating liquor and is thereafter requested to submit to a chemical test and refuses to do so, the test shall not be given but the secretary may suspend his license or permit to operate a motor vehicle . . . with or without a hearing . . . .*fn2

[ 233 Pa. Super. Page 96]

"(h) The refusal to submit to a chemical test may be admitted into evidence as a factor to be considered in determining innocence or guilt." (Emphasis supplied.)*fn3

The Commonwealth admits that the initial arrest of appellant was illegal.*fn4 The Vehicle Code, Act of April 29, 1959, P.L. 58, No. 32, § 1204(a), 75 P.S. § 1204(a), provides that "[p]eace officers, when in uniform and displaying a badge or other sign of authority, may arrest, upon view, any person violating any of the provisions of this act, where the offense is designated a felony or a misdemeanor, or in cases causing or contributing to an accident resulting in injury or death to any person . . . ."*fn5 (Emphasis supplied.) As the officers did not actually observe appellant driving his car, they illegally arrested him for drunken driving. Commonwealth v. Brown, 225 Pa. Superior Ct. 289, 302 A.2d 475 (1973); Commonwealth v. Reeves, 223 Pa. Superior Ct. 51, 297 A.2d 142 (1972). A chemical test obtained as a result of such an illegal arrest must be suppressed. Commonwealth v. Brown, supra; Commonwealth v. Reeves, supra. Nevertheless, the

[ 233 Pa. Super. Page 97]

Commonwealth contends that appellant's consent to take the breath test at the police station vitiated the initial illegal arrest.

Evidence obtained as the result of an illegal arrest must be suppresed as "fruit of the poisonous tree." Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471 (1963); Commonwealth v. Mackie, 456 Pa. 372, 320 A.2d 842 (1974). "[O]nce the primary illegality -- here the illegal arrest -- is established, the burden is on the Commonwealth to establish that [the evidence sought to be introduced] has been come at 'by means sufficiently distinguishable to be purged of the primary taint' rather than 'by the exploitation of that illegality.'" Betrand Appeal, 451 Pa. 381, 389, 303 A.2d 486, 490 (1973) citing Wong Sun, supra, at 488. "To be effective, consent to a search and seizure must be voluntarily given with the total absence of duress or coercion, express or implied." Commonwealth v. Pichel, 229 Pa. Superior Ct. 103, 106, 323 A.2d 113 (1974), citing Commonwealth v. Harris, 429 Pa. 215, 221, 239 A.2d 290 (1968).

The Commonwealth contends that appellant's agreement to take the breath test after learning that the alternative was the suspension of his license indicates that his choice was voluntary and unconstrained. Appellant was advised by his attorney that if he refused to take the test, his license would be suspended. The Commonwealth Court has held that a person placed under arrest and charged with drunken driving may have his license suspended if he refuses to submit to a chemical breath test, no matter how unlawful the arrest. Commonwealth v. Miles, 8 Comm. Ct. 544, 304 A.2d 704 (1973).*fn6 Thus, appellant's dilemma was the product of his arrest. Appellant should not be forced to make such a choice solely because

[ 233 Pa. Super. Page 98]

    of an unlawful arrest. Moreover, if the Commonwealth's logic were to be followed to its conclusion, even the appellant's refusal to submit to the test while under illegal arrest, had he so chosen, would have been held "voluntary" and admissible at trial under § 624.1(h).*fn7 Appellant's "free" choice, on a closer examination, turns out to be Hobson's choice, and the inadmissible fruit of the illegal arrest.*fn8

As we have determined that the trial judge erred in admitting the results of appellant's chemical breath test, appellant must be granted a new trial.*fn9

Judgment of sentence reversed and new trial granted.

Disposition

Judgment of sentence reversed and new trial granted.


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