Warrantless Blood Test; Exigent Circumstances Exception to the Warrant Requirement

Commonwealth v. Trahey, 183 A.3d 444 (Pa. Super. 2018), allocatur granted Oct. 23, 2018, appeal docket 38 EAP 2018

Timothy Trahey was charged with homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, homicide by vehicle, involuntary manslaughter, and driving under the influence (DUI), based on his alleged involvement in automobile accident that resulted in death of a cyclist. Superior Court summarized the facts as follows:

On Friday, September 4, 2015, at approximately 9:15 p.m., at the start of Labor Day weekend, 911 dispatchers received a report that a car had struck a cyclist on the 4900 block of Wynnewood Avenue in Philadelphia. However, police were not dispatched to the accident scene until 10:01 p.m. due to the lower priority of auto accidents on the hierarchy of circumstances in which Philadelphia Police Officers are dispatched to emergency situations.

At approximately 10:04 p.m., three minutes after their dispatch, Officers Christopher Marchesani and Derrick Lewis arrived at the accident scene and observed a smashed bicycle and a pickup truck that was partially on the sidewalk. The truck’s hood and grill were damaged, its windshield was shattered, and the windshield had a hole on the passenger’s side. The officers also noticed blood in the street. The officers approached a group of bystanders, who informed them that Appellee had been driving the truck and that the cyclist had already been transported to the hospital. The cyclist sustained fatal injuries from the crash and did not survive.

Officer Marchesani approached Appellee, who admitted that he was driving the truck that struck the cyclist. As Officer Marchesani walked with Appellee to his vehicle to get his driver’s license and registration, he noticed Appellee had a strong odor of alcohol, his speech was slow and slurred, his eyes were glassy, and his gait was unsteady. This was the first point at which the officers realized that this incident was likely a DUI-related crash as they had not been informed by the 911 dispatcher of the possibility that Appellee was intoxicated. Based on his observations, Officer Marchesani placed Appellee under arrest for DUI.

After spending approximately thirty minutes at the accident scene, the officers left to transport Appellee to the police headquarters, but were called back to the accident scene by the Accident Investigation District (AID), a specialized unit that investigates accidents that involved critical injuries. Three AID officers, Officer Patrick Farrell, Officer Daniel Shead, and Officer Hughes, took responsibility for investigating the scene of the accident. AID Officer Farrell observed signs of Appellee’s intoxication and was informed that nearly ninety minutes had passed since the crash. Officer Farrell become concerned with the time constraints associated with DUI testing as Appellee’s blood testing would have to be completed within two hours of the crash to accurately determine his blood chemistry at the time of the accident. Therefore, at 10:49 p.m., Officer Farrell sent Appellee directly for blood testing at the police headquarters.

On that evening, AID Officer John Zirilli was assigned to administer the blood and breath tests at the Police Detention Unit. Officer Zirilli sought to obtain a blood test from Appellee as a blood test is routinely administered in relation to auto accidents where a driver, passenger, or pedestrian sustained serious or fatal injuries. Officer Zirilli knew it was important to administer a blood test to Appellee within two hours of the accident. Thereafter, Officer Zirilli gave Appellee warnings from Pennsylvania’s implied consent statute that included advising him of criminal consequences a DUI suspect would face by refusing to submit to blood testing.

Appellee acknowledged these warnings, gave verbal consent to the blood testing, and signed the applicable 75–439 form. However, Appellee failed to check a box to indicate that he had agreed to submit to the blood test. At approximately 11:20 p.m., about two hours and five minutes after the accident had occurred, Appellee’s blood was drawn.

Slip Op. at 1-4.

Following charges, Trahey filed a pretrial suppression motion claiming police had subjected him to an unlawful search by seeking warrantless blood testing.

At the suppression hearing, the officers involved testified that the officers would not have had sufficient time to seek a warrant for the chemical testing of Trahey’s blood within two hours of the accident given the significant amount of time that had elapsed before the officers were able to respond to the accident scene and discover that Trahey was likely under the influence of a controlled substance when the accident occurred. Additionally officers testified as to the necessary efforts and time an AID officer would have to undertake in order to obtain a warrant for chemical testing, estimating that the entire process could take anywhere from seventy minutes to three hours, and that obtaining a warrant in a timely manner in this case would have been extremely difficult as there was no available AID officers to seek a warrant that night.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the lower court granted Appellee’s suppression motion, concluding that the officers subjected Trahey to an unlawful search when they compelled him to submit to a warrantless blood test. However, the court refused to determine whether the exigent circumstance exception was applicable, reasoning that at the time of Trahey’s arrest, the officers did not contemplate justifying their warrantless blood testing on exigent circumstances but believed that they had obtained Trahey’s valid consent to the blood testing.

Commonwealth appealed, arguing that the officers were justified in conducting a warrantless search of Trahey’s blood based on the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.

Superior Court acknowledged that exigent circumstances exception “applies 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.” Slip Op. at 8 (citing Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141, 148–49, (2013)). The court further explained that, “[d]ue to the fact-specific nature of this exception, our courts must evaluate the totality of the circumstances to determine whether a law enforcement officer faced exigent circumstances that justified a warrantless search.” Slip Op. at 9.

Superior Court found that when the suppression court in this case refused to determine whether the exigent circumstance exception was applicable, it failed to recognize that “it was required to determine whether the warrantless search was objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment” and “[h]ad the lower court properly assessed the facts and circumstances presented in this case, it would have found ample evidence to deny suppression of the blood evidence.” Slip Op. at 11 (emphasis in original).

Conducting its own analysis of the facts and circumstances in Trahey’s case, Superior Court found it “reasonable to believe that the arresting officers were confronted with exigent circumstances, in which the delay necessary to obtain a warrant threatened the destruction of evidence.” Slip Op. at 15.  This led the Superior Court to reverse and remand for further proceedings based on its holding that the suppression court erred in concluding that the exigent circumstances doctrine did not justify the warrantless testing of Trahey’s blood.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur on the following issue:

Do the facts and circumstances in this case justify a warrantless blood draw under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.