I’m taking a break from some avid post-conviction-ing to update y’all on yesterday’s newest DUI appellate decision.
In State v. Cates, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, Eastern Section, reversed a Carter County trial court decision, holding that the Defendant’s motion to suppression should be GRANTED and the conviction vacated.
DUI law in Tennessee has been interesting to following over the past several years; the CCA and Supreme Court have done a fairly good job of remaining consistent in their holdings. In Cates, the Defendant was involved in a single-car accident, which resulted in injuries to himself and death to the passenger. Cates was charged with the following: vehicular homicide by intoxication, vehicular homicide by conduct creating a substantial risk of death, and DUI. The accident happened at 1:47 a.m., and the responding officer smelled alcohol, but was unable to discern the location of the odor - was it the Defendant or in the vehicle?
Based on the car hitting a telephone phone in the early morning hours, the officer instructed the hospital to draw a blood sample. The officer observed the Defendant for approximately 45 seconds to 1 minute at the scene of the accident, and he did not draft a warrant this night, but he had drafted warrants on numerous occasions – even taking the search warrants for blood draws to a nearby judge’s house “at all hours of the night.” The officer testified that getting a search warrant that night would have required returning to the police station, drafting the warrant, providing to the DA for review, and then finding a judge to sign. He believed that “time was of the essence,” and he did not want anything to be put into the Defendant’s system before they could access his blood. Eleven officers were on-scene that night. Two officers went to collect a blood sample. Numerous officers had access to search warrant forms, cell phones, and radio.
Another officer followed the Defendant to the hospital, observed him for 20 minutes, and watched the drawing of a blood sample. The trial court held that exigent circumstances permitted the blood draw:
“the officer knew that surgery was a distinct possibility and that surgery more than likely would require the injection of various chemical into the Defendant’s body that might compromise the integrity of the blood alcohol test or drug screen. … the test of reasonableness is determined in the subjective thoughts of the officer at the time the decision was made to order the blood sample.”
This case went to trial and the Defendant was convicted of vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison. At trial, a forensic toxicology specialist, provided his best guess of Cates’s blood alcohol content as .152g at the time of the crash. A friend of the Defendant’s testified at trial, stating that the Defendant did not appear intoxicated on the night of the accident. The Defendant also testified. The passenger was his best friend since the 5th or 6th grade. After a cigarette run, they left a convenient store, rolled down the windows, turned up the radio, and hit the road. The Defendant testified that prior to the accident, he pumped the breaks and nothing happened. An auto mechanic that worked on the vehicle two months prior to the accident testified that he would have repaired any problems to the car, and he replaced the right tie rod of the vehicle. A final witness testified that he was present on the night of the accident and offered to drive so that Defendant wouldn’t have to.
THE LAW: “The drawing of the Defendant’s blood unquestionably constituted a search implicating Fourth Amendment protections.” These protections are deeply-rooted in our expectation of privacy. This was a non-consensual blood draw, where the officers relied exclusively on exigent circumstances as a basis for the draw. Exigent circumstances apply “when the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that a warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Citing McNeely, 133 S.Ct. at 1558. The State cannot speculate about the facts requiring exigency; the facts must be specific and articulable. In drunk driving cases, if the officer can reasonably obtain a warrant for a blood sample without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, they are required to do so.
The CCA found that there were a number of officers that could have began the process of drafting a warrant. The officers could have located two judges that lived within a few miles of the accident and had previously signed search warrants at all times of the day and night. The fact that officers expected the Defendant to undergo surgery did not make the attempts to obtain a warrant impracticable. “The State fails to explain why one of these officers could not have returned to the police department to start the warrant process while the Defendant was being transported to the hospital.” In a situation like this one, there will always be a delay between the time of the accident and the time of the blood draw. However, here, the State failed to show that getting warrant would have significantly undermined the efficacy of the search.
THE COMMENTARY: Just briefly, I think that the Supreme Court will grant cert in this case – I don’t think it is over for the Defendant. I’m not sure what the Supremes will do with it. I think the opinion puts a burden on responding police officers to be acutely aware of a number of facts when responding to a scene: the medical condition of the driver, the location of medical facilities, the location of a judge to sign a search warrant, the speed with which a warrant can be prepared, and how all of the considerations fit together on a timeline at 2 a.m.
READ THE FULL OPINION HERE: http://www.tsc.state.tn.us/sites/default/files/catesmicahopn.pdf.
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