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Commonwealth v. Bell

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

July 19, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA Appellant
v.
THOMAS S. BELL

         Appeal from the Order Entered August 22, 2016 In the Court of Common Pleas of Lycoming County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-41-CR-0001098-2015

          BEFORE: SHOGAN, MOULTON, JJ., and STEVENS, P.J.E. [*]

          OPINION

          STEVENS, P.J.E.

         The Commonwealth appeals from the order entered by the Court of Common Pleas of Lycoming County awarding Appellee Thomas S. Bell a new trial. The Commonwealth claims the trial court erred in finding that the prosecution's admission of evidence of Appellee's refusal to submit to a blood test at his trial on driving under the influence (DUI) charges violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.

         As we conclude that it is constitutionally permissible to deem motorists to have consented to the specific provision of Pennsylvania's Implied Consent Law that sets forth evidentiary consequences for the refusal of chemical testing upon a lawful arrest for DUI, we reverse and remand for sentencing.

         On May 16, 2015, officers initiated a traffic stop of Appellee's vehicle after observing that Appellee did not have his taillights properly illuminated. After approaching the vehicle, officers noticed Appellee's breath smelled of alcohol and his eyes were glossy and bloodshot. Appellee admitted to recently consuming four beers, was unsteady on his feet, and failed to perform field sobriety testing satisfactorily. Appellee's breath test revealed his blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was .127%. Officers placed Appellee under arrest for DUI and transported him to the Williamsport Hospital for blood testing. After Appellee was read the DL-26 Chemical Testing Warnings, he refused to submit to a blood sample.

         On May 18, 2015, Appellee was charged with DUI ─ general impairment (75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3802(a)(1)) and a summary charge for required lighting (75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4302(a)(1)). On March 8, 2016, Appellee filed a pre-trial motion to dismiss the DUI charge, specifically arguing that he had a constitutional right to refuse to submit to a warrantless blood test. Thus, Appellee claimed that his refusal to submit to a blood test should have been suppressed. On April 28, 2016, the trial court denied Appellee's motion.

         On the same day, Appellee proceeded to a bench trial in which the Commonwealth was permitted to introduce testimony from the arresting officer detailing how Appellee had refused a blood test. The officer explained that Appellee had asserted that he not want a needle in his arm because he claimed that he had contracted hepatitis from a hospital needle on a prior occasion. At the conclusion of the trial, Appellee was convicted of the DUI charge and the summary traffic violation.

         On July 1, 2016, Appellee filed a motion for reconsideration of the trial court's denial of his motion to dismiss, arguing that evidence of his refusal to submit to a blood test should have been deemed inadmissible at trial. Specifically, Appellee cited to the recent decision in Birchfield v. North Dakota, __U.S.__, 136 S.Ct. 2160, 2186, 195 L.Ed.2d 560 (2016), in which the Supreme Court found that implied consent laws cannot deem motorists to have given consent to criminal penalties upon their refusal to submit to chemical testing. On August 19, 2016, the trial court entered an order granting Appellee a new trial at which the prosecution would not be allowed to introduce evidence of Appellee's refusal. The Commonwealth filed this timely appeal.

         We review a trial court's decision to grant or deny a motion for a new trial under an abuse of discretion standard.[1] Czimmer v. Janssen Pharm., Inc., 122 A.3d 1043, 1051 (Pa.Super. 2015). Moreover,

[w]e must review the court's alleged mistake and determine whether the court erred and, if so, whether the error resulted in prejudice necessitating a new trial. If the alleged mistake concerned an error of law, we will scrutinize for legal error. Once we determine whether an error occurred, we must then determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in ruling on the request for a new trial.

Id. (quoting ACE Am. Ins. Co. v. Underwriters at Lloyds and Cos., 939 A.2d 935, 939 (Pa.Super. 2007)).

         The Commonwealth argues that Appellee is not entitled to a new trial as it was constitutionally permissible for the prosecution to introduce evidence of Appellee's refusal to consent to a warrantless blood test at his trial on DUI charges to show consciousness of guilt. Appellee asserts that he had a constitutional right to refuse the warrantless blood test pursuant to Birchfield; thus, Appellee argues the admission of the refusal evidence penalized him for exercising a constitutional right.

         Before reaching the parties' specific arguments, we begin by discussing the statutory scheme and related decisional law governing chemical testing of individuals suspected of DUI and related traffic offenses. Our courts have established that driving is a privilege, not a fundamental right. Commonwealth, Dep't of Transp., Bureau of Driver Licensing v. Scott, 546 Pa. 241, 250, 684 A.2d 539, 544 (1996); Commonwealth v. Jenner, 681 A.2d 1266, 1273 (Pa.Super. 1996). To hold this privilege, drivers must meet necessary qualifications and comply with the terms of the Implied Consent Law (75 Pa.C.S.A. ยง 1547), which requires motorists to submit to chemical sobriety tests ...


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