Monroe ruling could affect DUI cases

by Andrew Scott

If upheld in the higher courts, a recent Monroe County ruling would allow blood test results to be suppressed from evidence in cases where police never notified suspected intoxicated drivers of the full consequences of refusal to consent to blood tests.

Monroe County Court Judge Stephen Higgins recently granted the request of Scott Alan Matthews Jr., 29, of East Stroudsburg, to have Matthews’ blood test results suppressed from evidence in court. While the prosecution appeals Higgins’ decision, Matthews is awaiting a county court pre-trial conference on driving-under-the-influence charges after an October 2016 two-vehicle crash in East Stroudsburg Borough.

Represented by Stroudsburg-based attorney Michael Ventrella, Matthews requested his blood test results be suppressed because, though he consented to being tested, he did so without police having notified him of the full consequences whether he consented or not.

Matthews consented under the impression he could apply for the accelerated rehabilitative disposition (ARD) program for nonviolent offenders with no prior or no significant prior criminal records.

Instead of being charged and having a district court hearing to determine if there’s enough evidence to try the case in county court, the accused is placed on the ARD program and ordered to serve a probationary period.

If the accused successfully completes that probationary period without any further run-ins with the law, he/she can then request to have the case expunged from his/her record, thus keeping the slate clean. However, the court keeps its own record of the ARD on file for future reference should that person ever face new criminal charges.

In Matthews’ case, instead of an expected ARD application, he learned ARD in fact wasn’t being offered and that he was being charged with DUI affecting safety and DUI with the highest BAC (blood alcohol level).

“With the highest BAC” is a charge reserved for defendants whose levels have been found to be over thrice the state’s 0.08 percent legal limit at the time of their suspected DUI incidents.

Matthews was deemed ARD-ineligible because his BAC has been found to be 0.263 percent at the time of the two-vehicle crash involving him. Also, that crash resulted in a significant injury to the other driver and endangered the safety of that driver’s child passenger, police said.

So, instead of being allowed to apply for ARD, Matthews was scheduled for and waived a district court hearing on the DUI charges.

His case is now in county court, where he can go to trial or plead guilty or no contest. “No contest” means the defendant is not admitting guilt, but is no longer fighting the charge(s).

Matthews’ point is that, whether he ended up consenting to a blood test or not, police should have first notified him of the full consequences (the DUI charges) instead of leaving him under the impression he was ARD-eligible. Because police hadn’t notified him, his consent wasn’t knowing, intelligent or voluntary.

The law views consent to a blood test as a waiver of a search warrant requirement under a U.S. Constitutional Amendment, Judge Stephen Higgins noted in his recent ruling granting Matthews’ blood-test-results-suppression request.

On a case originating in North Dakota, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled blood tests may not be administered without a search warrant or the driver’s knowing, intelligent and voluntary consent. Furthermore, for such consent to be voluntary, refusal to consent must not result in criminal charges against the driver, the court ruled.

Prior to this ruling, police used a waiver form notifying drivers of the enhanced criminal penalties that could result from refusal to consent.

After the ruling, the waiver form was deemed “inherently coercive because of the explicit threat of punishment for refusal,” Higgins’ decision states. The form was thus amended to state that license suspensions could result from refusal to consent, but makes no mention of any enhanced criminal penalties.

Higgins quoted from a Pennsylvania court ruling stating, “An arrestee is entitled to this information so that his choice to take (or not take) a chemical test can be knowing and conscious. If neither voluntary consent nor some other valid exception to the warrant requirement is established, then a chemical test may be conducted only pursuant to a search warrant.”

Higgins’ own decision states, “For these reasons, we cannot find that (Matthews’) waiver of the search warrant requirement was knowing, intelligent or voluntary under the circumstances. Hence, suppression of blood test results is warranted.”

Because of the ruling in this case, a number of other cases, which involve or could involve requests to suppress blood test results from evidence, are now being reviewed, defense attorney Michael Ventrella indicated to the Pocono Record. This could change Pennsylvania law if upheld, Ventrella said.

This case is currently on appeal.