Pennsylvania’s Professional License Disciplinary Environment

The Professional Compliance Office within BPOA’s Legal Office, receives an average of 16,000 complaints per year. The office reviews these complaints to establish whether the complaint alleges conduct which is a violation of a practice act, whether a Board has jurisdiction, and whether there is sufficient evidence to merit further investigation. Complaints can be initiated by consumers, licensees, board or commission members, board or commission staff, competitor complaints, other state licensing boards, media information, and law enforcement.

When a complaint requires investigation, the Department’s Bureau of Enforcement and Investigation (BEI) interviews witnesses and obtains documents and collects evidence related to the allegation made in the complaint. Subsequently, a prosecuting attorney determines whether to close the complaint or to initiate a disciplinary action before the administrative licensing board.

Prosecution for violations of standards of practice are initiated through the filing of an Order to Show Cause.  The prosecutor who proceeds with the disciplinary action then bears the burden of proving misconduct before the board. Licensees are provided due process and the board adjudicates the case to either dismiss or sanction. Depending on the severity of the conduct proven, sanctions can range from probation and discretionary suspension, to revocation or automatic suspension as required by statute. Licensees have the right to appeal any sanctions to the Commonwealth Court for review.

Sanctions include: revocations, suspensions, stayed suspensions, voluntary surrenders, probations, reprimands, civil penalties. As of May 16, 2018, there had been 2,494 sanctions issued in fiscal year 2017-2018. This is the highest on record.  Nursing Board sanctions doubled between 2012 and 2018, from 436 to 840. Nursing Board actions account for 31% of all disciplinary cases.   Medical and Osteopathic Board sanctions remained the same at 190 and doubled from 27 to 46, respectively.  Pharmacy and Social Workers Board actions have both dropped by 50%.

Each board and commission is authorized to take disciplinary action based on the commission of a crime. Among these disciplinary actions taken:

• 29 % resulted in suspension;

• 17% resulted in stayed suspension (usually with probationary terms);

 

• 13.5% resulted in automatic suspension due to the Drug Act;

• 12.6% resulted in voluntary surrender of license;

• 12% resulted in revocation;

• 6.5% resulted in reprimands;

• 4.7% resulted in immediate temporary suspensions based on danger to health/safety of public;

• The remaining roughly 5% resulted in probation, a civil penalty (regular or Act 48), a stayed revocation, or other sanction such as remedial education, etc.

Call me to discuss your case.

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Medical Marijuana — Statistics, Reality, and Your Professional License

On November 12, 2018 the Philadelphia Inquirer reports with fanfare there are 84,000 Pennsylvanians registered as medical marijuana patients. The article emphasizes medical marijuana is not treating the medical condition stated on the licensee’s card. Rather it is used to control medical symptoms of the 21 different serious medical conditions. Importantly, medical marijuana is replacing opiates to control pain and other disruptive physiological manifestations that originate from a diagnosed medical condition. This is success.

Medical marijuana is not treating the underlying medical condition. For example, the nausea, anxiety, insomnia, and pain from cancer. PTSD, cancer, bowel diseases, and opiate-use disorder are the most common medical conditions.

Pennsylvania limits THC delivery mechanisms. Smoking marijuana buds or flower gives a THC affect that lasts several hours. Ingesting THC oils takes an hour to “work” but lasts 3 to 4 hours. Eating THC edibles (brownies, gummy’s, crackers or other items) lasts 8 to 10 hours after an hour delay.

The import of these statistics and the divergent time periods the THC “high” lasts cannot be overstated. One fact is clear; at least 84,000 people are driving under the influence of marijuana in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This is because having any level of THC in one’s blood and operating a motor vehicle is a crime. Driving under the influence of marijuana is a violation of 75 Pa. C.S.A. 3802D. Pot and a DUI Charge.  My prior blogs on what is a DRE a pot DUI and those issues are going to surface more and more every day.The DUI, a DRE and a Letter of Concern.

Pennsylvania licensees requiring medical marijuana to treat the symptoms of a medical condition will be working with THC in their bloodstream. In essence, these licensees are coming to work high. They are either under the short or long term affect of marijuana. Workplace related to drug tests will reveal marijuana in the licensee’s blood. This will generate an automatic referral to a prospective respective licensing board for investigation.

There is no Family Medical Leave Act or American With Disabilities exception under the medical related licensing regulations in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Testing positive for pot based upon a diagnosed medical condition could result in The Mental and Physical Evaluation which concludes a licensee is unable to safely practice their profession due to a marijuana addiction. The addiction stems from the medical need similar to an opiate addiction which began after a traumatic or significant pain related event or medical procedure.

Call me to discuss your case. The statistics do not bode well for Pennsylvania Pot card holders who are also licensees in the medical profession. In this opiate-addicted overdose environment, the Pennsylvania medical related boards are now vigilantly investigating and prosecuting medical marijuana users who the boards think are masquerading as competent and capable professionals who are in fact addicted to pot.

Act 6 of 2018 — All Licensees Must Report Criminal or Disciplinary Charges with in 30 Days

Act 6 of 2018 is a new law in 2018. It represents a fundamental shift in Pennsylvania licensees’ duty to report criminal charges and disciplinary actions filed against them in any jurisdiction in the entire country. The General Assembly passed the new law in anticipation of medical marijuana. The enforcement environment is getting much stricter in Pennsylvania. Every Pennsylvania professional licensee must report the misdemeanor and felony criminal charges to their respective board within 30 days receipt of criminal charges. It is a disciplinary offense for any licensee to not report within 30 days of receipt of criminal charges.

Act 6 of 2018 specifically authorizes the The Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs (“BPOA”) to subscribe to JNET. My prior blogs discuss JNET, the criminal reporting database network to which the Nursing Board began subscribing.   JNET now levels the reporting responsibility and Boards learning of its licensees’ criminal conduct.  There was a significant difference between nurses and doctors, pharmacist, realtors, cosmetologists, and funeral directors (and all others) in their criminal charge reporting responsibilities. All licensees are now treated equal. Licensees can not wait to report — thinking at a preliminary hearing charges will be reduced to a summary offense, for which there is a guilty plea. The charging is the reportable event, not the end result.

This all began in 2014.  In late 2014 the General Assembly modified Pennsylvania professional licensing regulations to require nurses to report criminal charges, not conviction, within 30 day days of charges being filing. The BPOA utilized the last several years to create a new enforcement infrastructure and mechanisms to insure disciplinary action is initiated against all nurses who either reported or they learned of criminal conduct or did not report at all.  The reporting responsibility is in addition to reporting criminal charges upon licensee renewal.

Through JNET the Nursing Board became familiar with the criminal reporting subscription service and its information power. Obviously the Board created a flow chart starting at receipt of criminal information through to disciplinary charge initiation for failure to report. The Nursing Board worked out the differences between JNET and nurse reporting of charges. Steps between failure to report, Board investigation, document review, and charges have also been ironed out.

Apparently BPOA had a significantly positive experience with JNET’s notification process, allowing it to better enforce nurses’ reporting responsibility. Expanding 30-day reporting of criminal activity to all other 25 licensing boards will inundate the BPOA with information regarding licensees’ criminal behavior.  This will produce some delays in failure to report and initiation of criminal charges.

The Act also gives the BPOA prosecutor not just the authority but the command to initiate within 30 days an emergent suspension if a licensee’s criminal acts reveal a clear and present danger to the public. The licensee is afforded a preliminary hearing to contest the automatic license suspension. This “automatic suspension process” is not new.

All licensees were spared the obligation to report summary Drug Act violations. By this I mean summary charges for disorderly conduct written by cops giving a break to licensees caught with illegal marijuana. This reporting requirement was in the original versions of the bill but stricken from the final version. The Act includes authority for every Board to institute a schedule of fines for escalating number of failure to report charges.

Act 6 includes a very limited right of expungement. This is only for disciplinary action for failure to comply with continued education requirements. The law explicitly precludes any expungement of any disciplinary order by any board for any other offense. Aside from capping Board fines to $10,000, BPOA can enter a judgment against the licensee if the fine is not paid in 5 years.

Call me to discuss your case.

PHMP versus RAMP: A Big Difference

I write blogs about Pennsylvania professional licensing legal developments.  I am also licensed to practice law in New Jersey. I routinely counsel Pennsylvania professionals concerned about their NJ licenses.  There is a huge difference between Pennsylvania’s PHMP and New Jersey’s RAMP (“Recovery and Monitoring Program “).  RAMP was established in 2003 as an Alternative to Discipline program, managed by the Institute for Nursing for the New Jersey Board of Nursing. http://njsna.org/ramp/

Pennsylvania medical professionals who live in New Jersey or Pennsylvania residents also licensed in NJ, but only use their PA  licenses, are exposed to RAMP.  (Obviously also are NJ licensees working in NJ.)  Any Pennsylvania medical professional, who is also licensed in NJ – who receives Pennsylvania PHMP letter – must consider how RAMP will respond if Pennsylvania restricts their professional license.  Any Pennsylvania disciplinary action based upon an alleged impairment of alcohol and drugs will come to NJ’s RAMP attention. Also, NJ licensees must carefully respond to RAMP communications.

A recent NJ appellate case reveals just how different RAMP is from Pennsylvania’s PHMP.  On November 16, 2017 a New Jersey appellate court decided In The Matter of the license of Kevin Rafferty, RN.  He was a certified registered nurse anesthetist and an Advanced Practice Nurse.  Mr. McCafferty‘s licensing problems began in 2013 when three co-workers smelled alcohol on his breath during work.  They levied anonymous complaints to the Nursing Board, which contacted RAMP. This was the only evidence against him.

RAMP contacted  Rafferty via letter, setting forth the allegations that he may have problems related to mental health and or substance-abuse that could affect his ability to practice his profession.  RAMP offered him a private letter agreement and enrollment for a minimum of 90 days.  During this time RAMP requires random observed drug tests, monthly self evaluation reports, and regular attendance in peer support meetings.  Post-enrollment, RAMP then requires an initial intake evaluation.  In my experience this evaluation typically  finds the professional needs to be in RAMP for 12 months.  The 90-day initial RAMP invite is a fraud!

It is this context (which the McCaffrey case reveals)  that RAMP’s enrollment process is distinctly different from Pennsylvania’s PHMP.  RAMP’s initial letter of invite is not really an offer, but an order to each licensee.  PHMP’s initial “Letter of Concern” is a non-mandatory offer for help and does not constitute a demand to enroll.

RAMP’s initial 90-day evaluation period is not based upon a medical expert assessment or determination the licensee suffers from a drug or alcohol addiction that renders them an impaired professional. That assessment comes only after RAMP enrollment and signing of the RAMP 90-day contract.  The licensee is then stuck.

The RAMP evaluation takes place after enrollment, when the agreement sign requires compliance with the terms and condition of the program.  Licensee thinking they are just going to get the 90 days meet the expert, who determines more time in RAMP is required. Now they are stuck and can’t break the agreement.

PHMP’s letter of concern offers an assessment and voluntary disclosure to determine in an impairment exists.   PHMP requires either a finding of an impairment or a voluntary admission of such before enrollment in the program.  Pennsylvania Voluntary Recovery Program (“VRP”) questionnaire includes a provision that the licensee admit to suffering from an impairment.  This is the voluntary admission part of the VRP contract.  I counsel against signing this agreement.  NEVER ADMIT you are an impaired professional.Wait for the Board to file a formal petition to Compel and Mental and Physical Evaluation.  (See my other blogs.)

McCaffrey did not respond the the initial 90 day RAMP letter.  He was determined to be “non-compliant“ with RAMP.  RAMP notified the Nursing Board that “it could not insure the board or the public that McCaffrey was safe to practice.”  The Board subpoenaed McCaffrey to appear before a committee of the Board to answer questions about  appearing at work smelling of alcohol.  McCaffrey appeared, denied the allegations, and brought numerous letters of reference.  The Board still concluded he should enroll in RAMP and proposed a 2nd private letter agreement requiring McCaffery participate.  He refused.

The Board issued a provisional order of discipline compelling McCaffrey to submit to an evaluation and monitoring to determine whether his continued practice may jeopardize the safety and welfare of the public.  This is a distinct different legal standard and burden of proof compared to Pennsylvania’s impairment burden of proof.

NJ’s licensing boards and Courts have long recognized a “community care-taking responsibility” as legal justification that allows government license restriction.  The NJ Nursing Board thereafter issued a final order compelling McCaffrey to enroll in RAMP. The Board determined such was required to satisfy its “mandate to protect the public.” McCaffrey‘s failure to comply with this final order was reported to the national practitioner data Bank. Still no medical determination of any impairment!

McCaffery appealed claiming there was no medical or legal basis to compel RAMP and that absent such, a general order requiring such denied him due process of law.   The appellate court reviewed McCaffrey’s objections to the Board’s order. The appellate court determined the Board maintains oversight over professional licensing for nurses pursuant to the Nursing Law.  Because the New Jersey professional nursing law requires an applicant not be a “habitual user of drugs and alcohol”, McCaffrey‘s potential for alcohol and drug abuse rendered him suspect of meeting the legal requirements of both the Nursing Licensing and Nurse Anesthetist laws.  The court found the Board had the authority even absent a medical conclusion of any impairment.

McCaffrey complained that absent an expert determination that he was impaired or suffered from a chemical dependency, he met the requirements for licensure.  The Board rejected this argument. The court determined the Nursing Board was within its statutory authority based upon the factual allegations, even without even an expert evaluation, that the Board was within its authority to compel McCaffrey to participate in the 90 day private letter RAMP program.  The decision was handed down in 2017.  McCaffrey’s work place situation occurred in 2013.

For the many licenses that practice in Pennsylvania, these procedural differences between the PHMP and RAMP are significant and should be respected. Pennsylvania’s regulatory and statutory framework allow for licensee participation in and evaluation by a board chosen medical expert before mandatory enrollment in the PHMP.  NJ does not allow for this pre-enrollment evaluation, compels participation, and then subjects the licensee to a bait and switch disciplinary monitoring program.

Please call me to discuss either of these programs and any letters you receive from your licensing board.

 

Medical Marijuana and the Pitfalls for the Professional

The pitfalls of medical marijuana for the professional are more evident every day. Several weeks ago I wrote a blog on the challenges facing licensees who seek a medical marijuana card due to a medical condition. Prescription Drug History   In another blog I wrote about the complexities facing medical professionals who seek to become medical marijuana authorized prescribers.

 

In Pot Doc Article the Philadelphia Inquirer reveals Pennsylvania’s Medical Board, Health Department, FBI, and DEA investigatory practices in this field.  If you are a medical professional, please read this article.  I represented a peripheral, part time doctor moon lighting for Dr. Nikparavarfard.

Doctors working in a medical practice that includes a “Pot Doc“ – doctors that are authorized to write prescriptions for medical marijuana – are subjecting themselves to unnecessary oversight and inquiry.  When a  “Pot Doc” exposes himself to both criminal and licensing  investigations, they expose all nurses or doctors employed by that practice.  Drug Act violations are routinely found and criminal charges filed!.

The FBI and DEA’s investigation of Dr. Nikparvarfard’s Scranton office – the Pot Doc – necessarily also included  my client’s prescribing patterns.  An invasive, long running investigation turned to her simply because the police were investigating that practice and needed leverage against Dr. Nikparvarfard.  Experienced and accomplished undercover FBI, DEA, Health Department agents then ensnared my client.  Again, only because they were looking at Dr. Nik’s practice.

My client was not the prescribing “Pot Doc.”  However, the overarching Pot Doc investigation expanded to any potential criminal activity discovered within the medical practice.  But for my client working for the Pot doc and his medical practice, my client would not have been under surveillance. Unfortunately she was.

Once my client became known to FBI, her prescription and Medicaid/Medicare billing patterns were easily examined, patients contacted, and medical procedures evaluated.  Undercover patients were sent to the practice.  All because of the attention brought on the practice by Pot Doc Nikparvarfard.

One bad apple spoils the pie; two or three bad apples subject professionals to jail.  These types of investigations render medical professionals (nurses and doctors) unemployed and potentially unemployable.  Thereafter, professionals are the target of multiple investigations by medical boards, DEA,  Health Departments, and potentially the U.S. Department of justice.  But for my client’s employment with a Pot Doc, she would not have come under any surveillance.

This case is but one example of many to come.  Overarching public safety concerns, opiates in the news, and an aggressive enforcement environment of a new regulatory scheme create huge risks for both Pot Docs and those doctors and nurses who work with them.

Please call me to discuss

Northampton County’s 1861 Court Room!!

Finding the diamond in the rough. That describes my recent drive to the Northampton County Courthouse. As my law practice takes me from the Philadelphia’s suburban counties to northeastern Pennsylvania, I routinely travel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and its Northeast extension.
The drive this July week was rough. The weather forecast proved accurate; rain and fog through the Lehigh Valley. It was raining so hard, I missed my exit off Rt 476E at Rt 22 E. I drove an additional 20 miles each direction, turning around in Jim Thorpe. (I love the Carbon County Courthouse – see my other blogs – but I was not going there today.)
 I was uncharacteristically late, arriving at 9:25 am for a 9:00 am hearing.  I was otherwise safe.  The judge was extremely gracious and polite. The case was handled quickly.  Opposing counsel – a local assistant district attorney – offered a tour of the courthouse as I expressed my appreciation for our hearing taking place in the old courthouse, courtroom 3, as compared to the new 2004 building.
The county website states, “The original court house was built in  1764. Nearly a century later and after the courthouse had experienced a number of historical events, which included being used as a barracks by Revolutionary troops, a group of citizens petitioned for a new County Courthouse at a different location. On August 23, 1860, the County Commissioners decided to accept land offered at a price of $1.00 that was located several blocks west of the original facility.   A new brick structure was later built on a steep hill at a cost of $53,000. The first term of court was held in the new facility on June 18, 1861.  Since then, two additional wings were constructed to accommodate the growth of Northampton County and satisfy the judicial needs of the expanded population.  The second part of the courthouse was built in 1978 and the third in 2004. “
I was interested in the 1861 building and court room 1.  Finished at the out set of the Civil War.   Wow!! A majestic legal theater, refurbished in 1978 to match the import to the community when the courthouse was built. Original woodwork, plaster, and paint are renewed. County Commissioners rightfully chose to not clutter the court room with of a phalanx of computer cables, microphones, and other modern day accoutrements that clutter some other county courtrooms in which I practice.
The pictures below reveal the courtroom’s grand entrance, judicial bench, and the jury box of the times. The remarkable woodwork and attention to detail immediately reveals itself. The artisans of Pennsylvania’s counties knew their work would be on display at every important and public event of the times. The honor and respect they earned working for their local government on the most important building in the county.

Pennsylvania’s Accepts the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact Act

Pennsylvania has finalized its membership in the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact Act.  Found at 63 P.S. §395.2, the General Assembly authorizes the Governor to execute the Interstate Compact for Medical Licensure of non-Pennsylvania based physicians.  As I wrote previously last summer, the proposal substantially strips Pennsylvania medical licensees of many due process rights.

Pennsylvania based physicians who seek licensure in member states become subject to those jurisdictions’ criminal and disciplinary process, investigations and actions.  My prior blog addresses the significant pit falls of that process.  Reviewing the definition section of the enabling legislation (which is a nationwide standard set of definitions and procedures) helps understand how and why Commonwealth Pennsylvania physicians seeking multi-state licensure are at substantial exposure to extra jurisdiction disciplinary action without the many protections of Pennsylvania’s administrative due process.

A physician’s medical license, granted by a member state to an eligible physician, is subject to this new law’s legal definitions. First and foremost is the definition of conviction of any type of criminal act. Conviction means: a finding by a court that an individual is guilty of a criminal offense through adjudication, or entry of a plea of guilt or no contest to the charge by the offender. Evidence of an entry of a conviction of a criminal offense by the court shall be considered final for purposes of disciplinary action by a member board.  Potential criminal acts — any “Offense” means: a felony, gross misdemeanor or crime of moral turpitude.

At issue for Pennsylvania and/or New Jersey doctors is the difference in criminal versus administrative matters.  A DUI in Pennsylvania is criminal versus New Jersey it is administrative.  There are many matters in Pennsylvania that result in a summary resolution, not a felony and misdemeanor conviction.  What is a gross misdemeanor?  The Act does not differentiate.  In Pennsylvania, criminal charges are brought after a  preliminary hearing.  Many states proceed by indictment.  The Act does not distinguish enrollment in a non-conviction based diversion program.  How difference states render disciplinary action based upon different standards of conduct (from that of Pennsylvania Medical Board) and resolution – which each member state will now have to unilaterally accept – is significant.

These huge differences apply to all physicians.  Who is a physician.  Physician under the Act means a person who:

1. is a graduate of a medical school accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation or a medical school listed in the International Medical Education Directory or its equivalent;
2. passed each component of the United States Medical Licensing Examination or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination within three attempts or any of its predecessor examinations accepted by a state medical board as an equivalent examination for licensure purposes;
3. successfully completed graduate medical education approved by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education or the American Osteopathic Association;
4. holds specialty certification or a time-unlimited specialty certificate recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties or the American Osteopathic Association’s Bureau of Osteopathic Specialists;
5. possesses a full and unrestricted license to engage in the practice of medicine issued by a member board;
6. has never been convicted, received adjudication, deferred adjudication, community supervision or deferred disposition for any offense by a court of appropriate jurisdiction;
7. has never held a license authorizing the practice of medicine subjected to discipline by a licensing agency in a state, federal or foreign jurisdiction, excluding an action related to non-payment of fees related to a license;
8. has never had a controlled substance license or permit suspended or revoked by a state or the United States Drug Enforcement Administration; and
9. is not under active investigation by a licensing agency or law enforcement authority in a state, federal or foreign jurisdiction.

 

Licensees must identify a state of primary licensure.  That state will verify eligibility, conduct background checks, and maintain fingerprint and biometric data. However, these investigations and parameters are set through federal regulations, and not individual state law. Expedited licensure issued by the central processing state makes that interstate commission more powerful than the individual primary state. The interstate license is limited to a specific period of time in the same manner as required for the physicians holding a full unrestricted license within that state. And expedited license obtained through the compact shall be terminated if the physician fails to maintain a license in the state of principle licensure for a non-disciplinary reason, without re-designation of a new state or principle licensure.

Because there’s a coordinated information system, Pennsylvania’s law allows member boards to report to the interstate commission any public action or complaints against a licensed physician who has applied to receive the expedited license through the compact. Member boards report disciplinary or investigation information and determine if it is necessary and proper basis for disciplinary action by the interstate commissions. Member boards may report any non-public complaint, disciplinary or investigative information to the commission. Member boards will share complaint or disciplinary information.. This means even the most minimal initial disciplinary investigatory claims, unfounded, without final disciplinary decision, by a member state is automatically reported to the entire commission. Disciplinary action from the commission, not an individual state jurisdiction, could be the basis for disciplinary action. How does the physician defend himself or herself against this.

The Act specifically says “any disciplinary action taken by any member board against a physician license through the compact shall be deemed unprofessional conduct which may be subject to discipline by other member boards, in addition to any violation of the medical practices act or regulations in that state. Such a disciplinary action by one state may be deemed conclusive as to a matter of law in fact, allowing the member jurisdictions to impose the same or less or sanction or pursue a separate disciplinary action against position under its respective medical practices act, regardless of action taken and other member states.

 

Call me about your license application, conditional approvals, of pending discipline.

Pennsylvania’s New DUI Case Law

Since Birchfield v. North Dakota, 136 S.Ct. 2160, 195 L. Ed. 2d 560 (2016), Pennsylvania’s DUI statute as applied to blood draws and refusals to submit to blood draws has because unenforceable.  The illegal escalation of criminal penalties for refusing to submit to a blood draw, or even being told of the enhanced penalties, has created an untenable situation for every police department in the Commonwealth.  They are still doing it wrong. Do not plead guilty.  Fight these cases.

Some departments are still reading the old refusal warnings.  Some are still taking people to the hospital when a simple breath test will work.  Some are making up new refusal warnings.  Some are trying to get people to freely consent to a blood draw without telling them of the consequences.  These, I think are all illegal procedures.  The cases are coming down every week limiting how the Commonwealth can gather evidence and what evidence can be used to prosecute the cases under the post-Birchfield paradigm.

It is the Commonwealth’s burden of proof to establish a DUI suspect’s consent to give blood is the product of essentially free and unconstrained choice—not the result of duress, coercion, expressed or applied. Commonwealth v. Gaetano, 2017 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1241 (April 4, 2017); Commonwealth v. Evans, 153 A.3d 323, 2016 PA Super 293 (Pa. Super. filed December 20, 2016). The standard for measuring the scope of a person’s consent is based upon an objective evaluation of what a reasonable person would have understood by the exchange between the officer and the person who gave such consent.

Gaetano and Evans  in applying Birchfield hold that the Commonwealth may not impose criminal penalties on the refusal to submit to a warrantless blood test.  Reading a person the now illegal O’Connell warning’s, or any other fabricated, constructed, newly designed version thereof, threat of enhanced criminal prosecution and incarceration vitiate consensual submission to a blood draw absent a warrant. Gaetano and Evans state it is the Commonwealth’s burden of proof to establish that a defendant’s consent is freely given and not the product of coercion.

It is not the a defendant’s burden of proof to establish or place in the record his subjective feelings of coercion. Commonwealth v. Fink, 2016 Pa. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 4704, *13 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2016).  The mere language of the O’Connell warning, or any other fabricated, constructed, newly designed version thereof, include a threat of enhanced criminal prosecution are coercive and the Commonwealth cannot establish coercive free consent.   Objective evidence of duress that is the basis for Gaetano and Evans will be present in almost every defendant’s arrest record, thus vitiating alleged voluntary consent to give blood draw.

Upon deciding a Motion to Suppress the blood evidence, trial courts cannot, and it is irrelevant to the constitutional evaluation under the Supreme Court precedent, put the burden on the defendant, as to what their objective state of mind was upon giving consent for a blood draw.

As for the specific refusal statute, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1547, Superior Court has concluded that it or police departments newly fabricated, constructed threat of enhanced criminal prosecution vitiates any consent given to a warrantless blood draw.  Gaetano and Evans maintain that subjecting defendants to warrantless blood draws based upon the illegal O’Connell warning consent provisions (or any other fabricated, constructed, newly designed but improper version thereof, threat of enhanced criminal prosecution) is illegal and unconstitutional under US Supreme Court and Pennsylvania appellate court jurisprudence.

In looking at the totality of the circumstances the court must determine that any consent is not voluntary and coerced. Birchfield’s review of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on blood testing compels a review of Missouri v. McNeely, 566 U.S ___ (2012),  where the Court refused to adopt a per se rule that “whenever an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has been driving under the influence of alcohol, circumstances will necessary exist because blood alcohol content evidence is inheritably evanescent.”  Id. at ____, (slip op., at 8).

McNeely is applicable in Pennsylvania DUI cases because officers in drunk-driving investigations can reasonably obtain a warrant before having a blood sample drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search.  The Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so.  They are no doing so.  The court has held that it is not enough to claim that “circumstances may make obtaining a warrant impractical such that the alcohol’s dissipation will support an exigency.” This is to be decided in each case on its facts.  The Court did not create a general rule based upon “considerable over generalization” that a per se rule would reflect.

Pennsylvania has said the same thing.  “The Fourth Amendment to the [United States] Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of [the Pennsylvania] Constitution protects Pennsylvania’s citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures.” Commonwealth v. McAdoo, 2012 PA Super 118, 46 A.3d 781, 784 (Pa. Super. 2012). “A search conducted without a warrant is deemed to be unreasonable and therefore constitutionally impermissible, unless an established exception applies.” Commonwealth v. Strickler, 563 Pa. 47, 757 A.2d 884, 888 (Pa. 2000).  “Exceptions to the warrant requirement include the consent exception, the plain view exception, the inventory search exception, the exigent circumstances exception, the automobile exception . . . , the stop and frisk exception, and the search incident to arrest exception.” Commonwealth v. Dunnavant, 2013 PA Super 38, 63 A.3d 1252, 1257 n.3 (Pa. Super. 2013).

As for blood, 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. Kohl, 532 Pa. 152, 615 A.2d 308, 315 (Pa. 1992); Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757, 770, 86 S. Ct. 1826, 16 L. Ed. 2d 908 (1966).  Since the DUI blood tests are typically performed without a warrant, the search is preemptively unreasonable “and therefore constitutionally impermissible, unless an established exception applies.”

In determining the validity of a given consent, the Commonwealth bears the burden of establishing that a consent is the product of an essentially free and unconstrained choice — not the result of duress or coercion, express or implied, or a will overborne — under the totality of the circumstances.  The standard for measuring the scope of a person’s consent is based on an objective evaluation of what a reasonable person would have understood by the exchange between the officer and the person who gave the consent.  Such evaluation includes an objective examination of the maturity, sophistication and mental or emotional state of the defendant. Gauging the scope of a defendant’s consent is an inherent and necessary part of the process of determining, on the totality of the circumstances presented, whether the consent is objectively valid, or instead the product of coercion, deceit, or misrepresentation.  Commonwealth v. Smith, 621 Pa. 218, 77 A.3d 562, 573 (Pa. 2013) (internal citations, quotations, and corrections omitted).

I think the DUI case law requires that the police tell the arrestee of the consequences of a refusal to take the test so that he can make a knowing and conscious choice.  When requested to take a breathalyzer or blood test, the court insists that in addition to telling an arrestee that his license will be suspended for one year if he refuses to take a breathalyzer test, the police instruct the arrestee that such rights are inapplicable to the breathalyzer test and that the arrestee does not have the right to consult with an attorney or anyone else prior to taking the test. An arrestee is entitled to this information so that his choice to take a breathalyzer test can be knowing and conscious and we believe that requiring the police to qualify the extent of the right to counsel is neither onerous nor will it unnecessarily delay the taking of the test.  Commonwealth v. O’Connell, 521 Pa. 242, 555 A.2d 873 (1989).

In many cases, the police claim a defendant allegedly consents to the warrantless blood draw during a custodial interrogation after the police inform him of some fabricated, constructed, newly designed informed consent language not court or legislatively approved. This is not proper.  Currently, the only available law requires the police to advise a defendant that: “if you refuse to submit to chemical test and you are convicted or plead to violating § 3802(a)(1) related to impaired driving under the vehicle code, because of your refusal, you will be subject to more severe penalties set forth in § 3804(c)[,] relating to penalties, the same as if you were — if you would be convicted at the highest rate of alcohol.”

This makes the verbal consent to a warrantless blood draw  during a non-mirandized, custodial interrogation in illegal statement subject to suppression.  Absent verbal consent, there is none.  Further, since Birchfield held that  a state may not “impose criminal penalties on the refusal to submit to [a warrantless blood] test,” the police officer’s advisory to any defendant on the non-legislatively permitted language illegal. Birchfield, 136 S.Ct. at 2186. This then requires a court to conclude that the search incident to arrest doctrine does not justify  warrantless blood testing compelled through enhanced criminal sentencing provisions for refusing to take that blood test.  This in turn means that the enhanced criminal offense, both in charges filed and potential sentencing scheme set forth in 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3802(b)(1)(2), compels this County Courts of Common Pleas to hold that “motorists cannot be deemed to of consent to submit to a blood test on fate of committing a criminal offense.”

Call me to discuss you DUI and blood draw evidence.

Another Really Nice Client Review with my Response

Here is another really nice and very accurate client review and my response. I can write blogs about this stuff. But, client testimonial about how aggressive and direct my representation is becomes the best blog.

I received a “letter of concern” from Pa nursing board after a charge of public intoxication.I unwittingly responded to the Board before contacting Richard.What a mistake!!!!The Board is not your ally-quite the opposite.Their job is to destroy you both financially and mentally.
Fortunately,Richard was able to expertly win our court case.Unfortunately,unbeknownst to me,I had been suffering from Bipolar disorder all the while,and the relentless emotional stresses caused by the Board caused me to suffer deep depression and a resulting manic swing where I had 2 DUI’s in a span of less than 2 weeks. Richard was right there for me and had my charges lessened significantly.Despite that,the Board required that I participate in their onerous,soul and money sucking program.I chose to voluntarily suspend my RN license rather than go through with that.I would not be able to work in my specialty during the 3+ years in the program,be out of thousands of dollars,and may not be employable when all is said and done.32 years as a nurse is enough for my lifetime anyway.
Richard Hark is an expert in protecting licenses of health care professionals and will work tirelessly to win your case.He is also very understanding and helpful with your anxieties at such a stressful and unsure time.I recommend him 100%.

Richard Quinton Hark’s response: “Thank you. I am so happy to help. I aggressively support every client’s need to take their medication without VRP and PHMP interjection in you, the professional’s, course of medical care and treatment. The one size fits all, regulatory approach does not work for everyone. We live in the best time of medical care and lawful prescription medication management of many medical conditions. Do not be ashamed or scared of your medical care as it pertains to your license. Anxiety, depression, ADHD are commonly diagnosed medical conditions for which properly administered and dosed medication management is no one’s business but the patient. Do not tell your job, your manager, the D.O.N., or any police officer in a DUI investigation. Do not respond to any letter of concern or sign medical authorizations releasing your medical care and treatment history to a social worker. Call me. This client and the others who have reviewed me attest to my aggressive defense of you, your privacy, and your license. I couldn’t be happier for this client who trusted my professional experience to help them, and won!!!!!!!”

Pennsylvania’s DUI Statute and Warrantless Blood Draws On An Unconscious Person

Since Birchfield v. N. Dakota, 136 S.Ct. 2160, 2173, 2185, 195 L. Ed. 2d 560 (2016), the Pennsylvania Supreme court has swiftly moved to invigorate and buttress Pennsylvania civil liberties and motor vehicle drivers’ privacy rights.  On July 19, 2017, in Commonwealth v. Myers, 2017 Pa. LEXIS 1689, 2017 WL 3045867, the Court upheld lower court rulings granting suppression of blood evidence seized from a drunk, unconscious motorist.

The facts are simple. Myers was visibly drunk, operated the motor vehicle, was arrested by one police officer, and taken to the hospital for a blood draw. A second officer arrived at the hospital, did not observe Myers or ask his consent to take his blood before hospital staff administered medication rendering Myers unconscious.  Unable to respond to his commands, the 2nd police officer instructed the nurse to draw Myers’ blood for testing.  The police did not secure a warrant to draw or search drunk, unconscious Myers’ blood.

The Court granted the appeal to consider the lawfulness of a warrantless blood draw conducted upon a motorist who, having been arrested for DUI, had then been rendered unconscious by medical personnel before a police officer provided O’Connell warnings and before the officer requested the motorist’s submission to a chemical test. The Philadelphia Municipal Court, the Court of Common Pleas, and Superior Court all held that a blood draw conducted under these circumstances is impermissible, and that the results of the derivative blood test are accordingly inadmissible at trial. Because the seizure of Myers‘ blood violated Pennsylvania’s implied consent statute, 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547, and because no other circumstances justified the failure to obtain a search warrant, the Court affirmed all of the lower courts’ decisions suppressing the blood evidence.

At the intermediate appellate level, in Commonwealth v. Myers, 2015 PA Super 140, 118 A.3d 1122 (Pa. Super. 2015), the court stated that Subsection 1547(b)(1) “provides a driver under arrest with [a] statutory right of refusal to blood testing.” (quoting 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(b)(1)).  Because Myers was unconscious at the time that Officer Domenic requested the blood draw, the court observed that Myers “could not claim the statutory protection” of Subsection 1547(b)(1). 

Superior Court also relies upon Missouri v. McNeely,     U.S.    , 133 S.Ct. 1552, 185 L. Ed. 2d 696 (2013), holding that, “because police did not act pursuant to the implied consent law until 4:45 p.m., after Myers had been rendered unconscious by an intervening cause that occurred subsequent to his DUI arrest and transport to the hospital, … McNeely controls here.”  Like the trial court, Superior Court determines the Commonwealth failed to demonstrate the impracticability of obtaining a warrant prior to the blood draw. Therefore, the panel held that the trial court correctly affirmed the Municipal Court’s order granting Myers‘ motion to suppress.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, the Commonwealth argues that the implied consent statute establishes a valid exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and that the statutory right to refuse chemical testing does not apply to unconscious arrestees. The Commonwealth’s central premise is that, under 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(a), “any individual who exercises the privilege of driving in Pennsylvania has consented to a blood draw.” 

Although a conscious individual may refuse to submit to a chemical test, the Commonwealth asserts that “[t]here is no law in Pennsylvania that treats an unconscious defendant as having revoked his already-provided consent.”  The Commonwealth faults the Superior Court for “distinguish[ing] between conscious and unconscious drivers without any analysis.” (emphasis omitted). In the Commonwealth’s view, an arrestee’s state of consciousness matters only to the extent that “[u]nconsciousness . . . prevents the suspect from refusing the blood draw,” but it “does not somehow negate his existing consent.”  The Supreme Court categorically rejects this argument.

 

A review of the DUI informed consent issue is a good place to start.  Consistent with 75 Pa. C.S.A. §1547(c) the Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle code imposes evidentiary admissibility standards for blood tests consensually drawn without a warrant. Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle code addressing driving under the influence (“DUI”) of alcohol or controlled substances, 75 Pa. C.S.A. § 3802 (b)(c) & (d) each contain as an essential element of the criminal offense a defendant’s blood alcohol concentration level.

The grading provisions of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle code, 75 Pa. C.S.A. §3803(d), as they relate to DUI charges, identify in subsections 1 through 4 that any individual who is under investigation for violating 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3802, et seq., (accusing an individual of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol such that they are incapable of safely driving) and refuses to voluntary submit to a warrant-less blood test, is to receive enhanced criminal sentencing terms of incarceration solely as a result of the refusal to voluntarily submit to the blood draw.

Pennsylvania’s implied consent law requires motorist who drive on our roads to automatically consent to a blood draw if under police investigation for alleged DUI.  75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(b)(2) (prescribing the “duty of the police officer” to inform a DUI arrestee of the consequences of refusal); Pa. Dep’t of Transp., Bureau of Traffic Safety v. O’Connell, 521 Pa. 242, 555 A.2d 873, 877 (Pa. 1989) (“The law has always required that the police must tell the arrestee of the consequences of a refusal to take [a chemical] test so that he can make a knowing and conscious choice.”)  If the operator refuses, no blood draw can take place.  Now after, Birchfield, the motorist can not be criminally penalized for refusing the blood draw.

By operation of the implied consent statute, once a police officer establishes reasonable grounds to suspect that a motorist has committed a DUI offense, that motorist “shall be deemed to have given consent to one or more chemical tests of breath or blood for the purpose of determining the alcoholic content of blood or the presence of a controlled substance.” 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(a). Notwithstanding this provision, Subsection 1547(b)(1) confers upon all individuals under arrest for DUI an explicit statutory right to refuse chemical testing, the invocation of which triggers specified consequences. See 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(b)(1) (“If any person placed under arrest for [DUI] is requested to submit to chemical testing and refuses to do so, the testing shall not be conducted”); Eisenhart, 611 A.2d at 683 (“The statute grants an explicit right to a driver who is under arrest for [DUI] to refuse to consent to chemical testing.”).

The Court rules that under this statutory scheme, a motorist placed under arrest for DUI has a critical decision to make. The arrestee may submit to a chemical test and provide the police with evidence that may be used in a subsequent criminal prosecution, or the arrestee may invoke the statutory right to refuse testing, which: (i) results in a mandatory driver’s license suspension under 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(b)(1); (ii) renders the fact of refusal admissible as evidence in a subsequent DUI prosecution pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(e); and (iii) authorizes heightened criminal penalties under 75 Pa.C.S. § 3804(c) if the arrestee later is convicted of DUI.

Previously, in very certain terms, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has held that, in requesting a chemical test, the police officer must inform the arrestee of the consequences of refusal and notify the arrestee that there is no right to consult with an attorney before making a decision. See O’Connell, 555 A.2d at 877-78.12Link to the text of the note “An arrestee is entitled to this information so that his choice to take a [chemical] test can be knowing and conscious.” Id. at 878. The choice belongs to the arrestee, not the police officer.

In determining the validity of a given consent, the Commonwealth bears the burden of establishing that a consent is the product of an essentially free and unconstrained choice — not the result of duress or coercion, express or implied, or a will overborne — under the totality of the circumstances. The standard for measuring the scope of a person’s consent is based on an objective evaluation of what a reasonable person would have understood by the exchange between the officer and the person who gave the consent. Such evaluation includes an objective examination of the maturity, sophistication and mental or emotional state of the defendant. Gauging the scope of a defendant’s consent is an inherent and necessary part of the process of determining, on the totality of the circumstances presented, whether the consent is objectively valid, or instead the product of coercion, deceit, or misrepresentation.  Commonwealth v. Smith, 621 Pa. 218, 77 A.3d 562, 573 (Pa. 2013).

The case of Commonwealth v. Evans, 2016 PA Super 293  (December 20, 2016), is the first major Pennsylvania Appellate Court decision discussing Pennsylvania’s DUI statute, the Implied Consent Law (“O’Connell Warnings”), and the prosecutor’s burden of proof at the suppression hearing.  Evans holds that a defendant does not have to prove they gave consent only based upon the threat of a more severe criminal penalty (jail and further license suspension).  Rather, the statute itself establishes this burden and the Prosecutor must rebut that legal presumption.  Because there is no ability to rebut a presumption of illegitimate consent when threatened with enhanced jail penalties, all motions to suppress must be granted.

Myers takes Evans one step further, finding that “Subsection 1547(b)(1) does not distinguish in any way between conscious and unconscious individuals, but, rather, provides the statutory right of refusal to “any person placed under arrest” for DUI. 75 Pa.C.S. § 1547(b)(1) (emphasis added). By its plain meaning, “any person” necessarily includes an unconscious person. Accordingly, we hold that Myers had an absolute right to refuse chemical testing pursuant to the implied consent statute, that his unconscious state prevented him from making a knowing and conscious choice as to whether to exercise that right, and that the implied consent statute does not authorize a blood test conducted under such circumstances.”

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