July 27, 2015
Chemical Search in a DWI Case a Search Incident to Arrest?
Pennsylvania Vehicle Code Section 1547 establishes the general rule that anyone who drives or is in physical control of a vehicle “shall be deemed to have given consent” for a chemical test to determine if the motorist is impaired by drugs or alcohol. The implied consent law requires motorists to submit to testing “if a police officer has reasonable grounds” to believe that the motorist is impaired.
Implied consent laws mean you face criminal penalties if you refuse a chemical test when a law enforcement officer has the right to administer it. One question that may be raised in a DWI defense, however, is whether a law enforcement officer acted appropriately or whether your rights were violated.
Evaluating the Constitutionality of Implied Consent Laws and Their Applications
A recent case out of Minnesota addressed the application of the state’s implied consent laws. The case made it all the way to the state supreme court and a Petition for Writ of Certiorari has been filed with the U.S. Supreme Court. If the U.S. Supreme Court takes the case, it could affect the rights of drunk driving defendants nationwide.
The Minnesota implied consent law is similar to the PA law because it requires a driver to take a chemical test if there is probable cause a driver has consumed alcohol or drugs. One driver was arrested by law enforcement on suspicion of drunk driving after police were called to a boat ramp. The phone call to police indicated three intoxicated men had been trying to get a boat out of the water. When the police arrived, there was a truck in the water and the defendant was holding the keys.
The defendant admitted he’d been drinking but wouldn’t take any field tests and wouldn’t admit he’d been driving the car. After the police arrested him and took him to the station, he was read the state’s implied consent laws and told he had to take a chemical test. He refused and was charged with first degree test refusal. He subsequently filed a motion to dismiss, arguing the constitutionality of the state’s testing laws and asserting a due process violation because the state’s laws criminalize the refusal to submit to a warrantless search.
The district court said the testing statute was constitutional, but dismissed the case against the defendant based on the fact the police had no warrant. The court of appeals reversed, holding the statute was a reasonable means to a legitimate objective and was constitutional. The court of appeals also held that the search was appropriate in this particular case even without a warrant because it was a search incident to a lawful arrest.
The legal doctrine of search incident to arrest (SITA) allows a warrantless search of someone’s person and his immediate surrounding property upon a lawful arrest in order to protect the safety of a law enforcement officer and prevent the destruction of evidence. Prior to this recent Minnesota case, however, no court had ruled that a warrantless breath test was allowed under a search incident to arrest and thus charging a defendant with the refusal to take the test didn’t implicate a fundamental right.
If the Supreme Court takes the case, the rights of defendants in drunk driving cases nationwide could be impacted as a decision could open the door for more warrant-less chemical testing.