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Pennsylvania

High costs for refusing breathalyzer test among new Pennsylvania laws for 2018

| Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, 3:15 p.m.
Bob Saxman blows into a breathalyzer held by course instructor Ron Harvey as part of a sobriety test training program for police officers at the Springdale Township Fire Department. 
Tribune-Review file photo
Bob Saxman blows into a breathalyzer held by course instructor Ron Harvey as part of a sobriety test training program for police officers at the Springdale Township Fire Department. Tribune-Review file photo

Pennsylvania police will have a new financial incentive to make suspected drunk or impaired drivers consent to a breath or blood test even without a warrant under one of several new state laws that take effect this month.

Senate Bill 553 made changes to the state's DUI laws and will take effect Jan. 11. Among them is a new fee for refusing to submit to a blood-alcohol test, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that police can't obtain blood samples without a warrant or consent.

Under the revised law, drivers who refuse a blood-alcohol test but are convicted and lose their license will have to pay a “restoration fee” for their license of up to $2,000 — $500 for the first time a test is refused, $1,000 for the second time and $2,000 for the third and each time after. The law requires officers to inform suspects of the costs when they're pulled over.

Douglas Sughrue, head of the Allegheny County Bar Association's criminal defense section, said the new civil fees were a way for police to skirt the Supreme Court's ruling that criminal punishment for refusing a warrantless blood test was unconstitutional.

The normal fee to get a driver's license back was $70; when added to court costs and other fines, the new restoration fees would make it even harder for working-class or poor people to get their licenses restored, Sughrue said.

“It's really a no-win situation for those people,” he said. “When you see those signs by the side of the road, ‘DUI: You can't afford it,' it's really true.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports the changes.

“Mothers Against Drunk Driving does support imposing fines and any other incentives that deter a suspected drunk driver from refusing an alcohol test,” said Malcolm Friend, spokesman for the organization's Pennsylvania office. “These types of incentives help remove drunk drivers from our roads immediately and save law enforcement the time and paperwork required to obtain a warrant. Obtaining a warrant means time lost on getting an accurate reading of the suspected drunk driver's (blood-alcohol content).”

Defense attorney David Shrager said he isn't sure the new fees would stand up to a court challenge if they were demonstrably meant to punish drivers, rather than reflecting the state's costs of handling their cases.

“If they're saying someone is being charged money just because they exercised their right — and it is a right to refuse — that seems to be constitutionally untenable to me,” Shrager said. “If they're tying it to appropriate administrative costs of getting your license back, that may be OK.”

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or via Twitter @msantoni.

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