Warrantless blood draw of DWI defendant upheld

The Eastern District of Missouri Court of Appeals upheld a first-degree manslaughter conviction involving a warrantless blood draw while Defendant was unconscious, in addition to allowing his statements into evidence despite possible evidence of a traumatic brain injury.

Defendant and friends had been drinking. Defendant was driving vehicle with his friends when the car slid off the road and overturned.  Officer arrived at scene and saw two in the vehicle. The two were transported to a hospital.  One of the occupants of the car died. Defendant was charged with first-degree involuntary manslaughter and second-degree assault. He was released to the St. Francois County jail after a lengthy stay in a rehabilitation center.

Law enforcement officer would later meet Defendant at the jail. Defendant gave conflicting reports about whether he was driving. Initially, Defendant told Officer the passenger was driving the van. He also stated, “It wasn’t me. I ain’t going to lie to you. I got nothing to hide.” However, he later said, “I think maybe I might have drove. I don’t know. I might be going nuts.” According to the Officer, Defendant seemed incoherent and confused.

At trial, the defense strongly disputed that Defendant was, in fact, driving the van the night of the accident. There was significant testimony presented, including accident reconstructionists for both the State and Defendant, as well as other fact witnesses who testified about potential evidence that Petty was actually driving that night. A jury convicted Defendant of both counts and he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for each count, to be served concurrently. Defendant appealed his conviction.

Defendant appealed on three grounds, one of which was that his blood was withdrawn without a warrant. Defendant was discovered unconscious and bleeding outside the van involved in a single car accident. He was taken to the hospital and his blood was drawn while he remained unconscious. The officer had testified that he observed a “very strong odor” of intoxicants on Defendant.

Another passenger, who was still in the van at the scene, informed the officer that Defendant was driving and lost control, and that Defendant consumed four or five beers in addition to using methamphetamine that evening.

Appellate court said there was probable cause for the officer to believe Defendant was driving while intoxicated. The appellate court applied rationale used in another case, Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 139 S.Ct. 2525 (2019), and stated that a warrantless blood test while Defendant was unconscious did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights.  Therefore, the trial court did not err in admitting evidence of the blood test taken while Defendant was unconscious.

His second point on appeal involved whether the Defendant was cognitively impaired by a traumatic brain injury from the accident to have “knowingly and intelligently” waived his Fifth Amendment right to be free from self-incrimination. A person’s Miranda rights (or privilege against self incrimination) can be waived if the waiver is made voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently.

Defendant here argued that his rights to be free from self-incrimination were violated when he spoke with a law enforcement officer; therefore, his statements should have been suppressed because of his injuries.

The Court, however, stated there is no prohibition against a seriously injured suspect making a voluntary statement or confession unless there is evidence to indicate he did not fully understand the subject matter of the conversation.  Citing the case of Harris v. State, 475 S.W.3d 227, 231 (Mo. App. W.D. 2015), the Appellate Court stated a defendant must demonstrate his injuries were so significant as to overcome his will to resist questioning in order to justify suppression of statements made during such questioning.

The Court looked at the evidence in the case.  During the suppression hearing, the law enforcement officer testified he advised Defendant of his Miranda rights and that Defendant did not subsequently request counsel. Furthermore, Defendant continued to speak freely with officer, nor did he refuse to make a statement following his Miranda warnings.

Now this is interesting. The officer testified Defendant seemed confused and incoherent at times during their discussion. And that he made several random statements unrelated to the accident and whether he was driving. However, the Appellate Court reasoned that this did not establish Defendant was injured to the extent his will to resist questioning was overcome.  The Court saw that the record actually shows that Defendant requested to speak to the officer about the accident and voluntarily provided the officer with information about his role in it. Bottom line, the trial court did not err in denying Defendant’s motion to suppress his statements to the officer, the Appellate Court wrote.

The opinion was written by Judge Lisa P. Page, J. with Judges Colleen Dolan, Roy L. Richter, J., concurring

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