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Commonwealth v. Johnson

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

May 21, 2018

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA Appellant
v.
SHARON KAY JOHNSON

          Appeal from the Order entered June 30, 2017, in the Court of Common Pleas of Centre County, Criminal Division, at No(s): CP-14-CR-0000526-2017

          BEFORE: LAZARUS, J., KUNSELMAN, J., and FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E.

          OPINION

          KUNSELMAN, J.

         The Commonwealth appeals from the order granting Sharon Kay Johnson's motion to suppress the test results of a warrantless blood-draw. We reverse.

         A summary of the facts, as stipulated to by the parties, is as follows.

         On January 16, 2017, Officer Nicole Foley arrested Johnson with probable cause and requested a blood-draw. Within the required two hour time period, Johnson was transported to Nittany Medical Center for a blood-draw. At the hospital, Officer Foley gave Johnson the revised DL-26 form; the form did not list enhanced criminal penalties as a consequence of failing to consent to a blood-draw. Officer Foley read the DL-26 form to Johnson and gave her the opportunity to read it herself. She did not tell Johnson that she would face greater criminal penalties if she refused consent to a blood-draw. Johnson, signing the form, consented to the blood-draw. Officer Foley did not threaten or coerce Johnson.

         Johnson testified that, at the time of her arrest, she sincerely but erroneously believed that refusing the blood-draw would subject her to greater criminal penalties. This misunderstanding came from Johnson's previous DUI arrest and attending DUI Safe Driving School.

         Johnson filed a pretrial motion, seeking to suppress the warrantless blood-draw. She argued that: 1) a blood-draw given based upon the revised O'Connell warnings, [1] even without the clause regarding increased penalties, remained coercive and contrary to Birchfield v. North Dakota, 579 U.S., 136 S.Ct. 2160 (2016), because 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3804(c) still contained the increased penalty language as the law; and 2) Johnson's existing knowledge of the enhanced penalties under 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3804 rendered her warrantless blood-draw coercive under Birchfield. The trial court granted Johnson's motion to suppress.

         The Commonwealth appealed one issue:

Whether the trial court erred in granting Johnson's motion to suppress, because Officer Foley did not tell Johnson that she would face harsher criminal penalties for refusing a blood test, making Johnson's consent voluntary.

See Commonwealth's Brief at 4.

         Our standard of review for a suppression court's conclusions is de novo, because when police elect not to procure a warrant prior to searching, they forgo prior judicial authorization and so invite our highest degree of appellate scrutiny on review. See Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690 (1996). That said, we must "take care both to review findings of historical fact only for clear error and to give due weight to inferences drawn from those facts by resident judges and local law enforcement officers." Id. at 699.

         In making these judgments, our scope of review is limited to only the evidence in the suppression hearing. See Commonwealth v. Ennels, 167 A.3d 716 (Pa. Super. 2017) (citations omitted). "In addition, because the defendant prevailed on this issue before the suppression court, we consider only the defendant's evidence and so much of the Commonwealth's evidence as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the record as a whole." Ennels at 718-19 (quotation marks and citations omitted). Despite our narrowed view of the record and the clearly erroneous standard we apply to the trial judge's findings of fact, we cannot sustain the order granting suppression of Johnson's blood-draw in this case.

         The governing law in this area is well settled. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and Article I, § 8 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania both prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures. "The administration of a blood test, performed by an agent of, or at the direction of the government, constitutes a search under both the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions." Commonwealth v. Evans, 153 A.3d 323, 328 (2016) (citations omitted). If an officer performs a blood-draw search without a warrant, it is "unreasonable and therefore constitutionally impermissible, unless an established ...


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