Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Minnesota DWI Lawyer Blogs on Minnesota DWI: This Week's Featured Minnesota DWI Case

The Minnesota DWI Case Of The Week is State v. Roehler (Decided October 6, 2014, Minnesota Court of Appeals, Unpublished), which stands for the proposition that the police must attempt to obtain a search warrant before obtaining a non-consensual blood draw.

In Roehler, the Defendant was involved in a head-on car accident on Highway 34, approximately five miles east of Park Rapids, Minnesota. The Defendant's car crossed over the centerline of the highway and collided with a van traveling in the opposite direction. The driver of the van was killed instantly, and the van's other two passengers, the driver's daughter-in-law and grandchild, were injured. The Defendant was also seriously injured.

While in the ambulance, a state trooper noticed an odor of alcohol coming from the Defendant and requested that the nurse draw a sample of the Defendant's blood.  The trooper did not have a warrant authorizing the blood draw.  The blood was withdrawn at 6:31 p.m. through an intravenous line that was also being used to treat the Defendant with fluids, and as a result, the sample was diluted.

Another blood draw was taken at approximately 8:58 p.m. at the direction of the trooper shortly before the Defendant went into surgery.  The trooper did not obtain a warrant for this blood draw.

The Defendant was charged with eleven criminal counts, including three counts of criminal vehicular homicide, six counts of criminal vehicular operation, and two counts of DWI. 

At trial, Donna Zittel, a forensic toxicology specialist at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) crime lab, testified that both the 6:31 p.m. blood draw and the 8:58 p.m. blood draw showed a BAC of .05., but she also testified that because the 6:31 p.m. blood draw may have been diluted, the sample was not valid for use in reverse extrapolation to determine appellant's BAC at the time of the accident. Zittel's report based on the 8:58 p.m. blood draw was admitted into evidence and indicated that appellant likely had a BAC of between .08 and .14 at the time of the accident. Zittel also testified that the rate at which alcohol diminishes in the blood is not affected by drugs or trauma.

The Defendant was convicted on all eleven counts and on appeal, argued that the blood extrapolation evidence should have been suppressed as the police made no effort to obtain a search warrant for the blood samples.  The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed ruling:

"The blood draw at 6:31 p.m. may have been taken under exigent circumstances: given the uncertainty and chaos at the accident scene and the necessity of transporting appellant to an out-of-state hospital, the totality of the circumstances supports a finding of exigency. The 8:58 p.m. blood draw does not present the same exigencies. This test was taken without a warrant nearly one-and-a-half hours after the trooper arrived at the Fargo, North Dakota, hospital and nearly three hours after the accident. While the warrant process may be more complicated when it involves interstate law enforcement, it is not impossible in view of modern technology.

In McNeely, the Supreme Court stated that the
proposed per se rule [that dissipation of alcohol creates an exigent circumstance] . . . fails to account for advances in the 47 years since Schmerber was decided that allow for the more expeditious processing of warrant applications, particularly in contexts like drunk-driving investigations where the evidence offered to establish probable cause is simple.

Applying these principles, although the 6:31 p.m. draw may support a finding of exigent circumstances, the 8:58 p.m. draw does not. The state offered no explanation why it could not obtain a warrant before conducting the later blood draw.

We therefore conclude that the district court erred by refusing to suppress the results of the 8:58 p.m. blood draw because the state failed to show under the totality of the circumstances that exigent circumstances prevented the police from obtaining a warrant. Further, the record reflects that the 6:31 p.m. blood draw was tainted and was used at trial only to confirm the results of the expert's extrapolation from the 8:58 p.m. draw results. Thus, the evidence at trial is insufficient to sustain appellant's convictions based on having a BAC of more than .08.

Finally, we conclude that the erroneous admission of the 8:58 p.m. blood draw results was not harmless. "When an error implicates a constitutional right, we will award a new trial unless the error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. An error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt if the jury's verdict was surely unattributable to the error." State v. Davis, 820 NW.2d 525, 533 (Minn. 2012) (citation and quotations omitted). The state's case rested heavily on the expert's extrapolation from the 8:58 p.m. blood draw and admission of that evidence was highly prejudicial to the Defendant. Further, the BAC evidence may have contributed to the jury's verdict on the charges based on gross negligence rather than on BAC; a jury could find that test results reflecting intoxication are persuasive evidence of gross negligence. Because of this, we cannot conclude that introduction of the BAC evidence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, and we must reverse and remand for a new trial."

Moral Of The Story: If the police want to draw your blood, tell them to get a warrant.

F.T. Sessoms, Minnesota DWI Attorney, Minnesota DUI Lawyer, Minneapolis DWI Attorney, Minneapolis DUI Lawyer