Warrantless blood draw permitted in fatal accident based on exigency. State v. Zalcberg232 N.J. 335 (2018).
The totality of the circumstances in this case evince an objective exigency, relaxing the need for a warrant and rendering the officer’s warrantless blood draw constitutional. The court held that the facts of this case, in totality, indicate an objective exigency: a fatal accident with multiple serious injuries, the absence of an established telephonic warrant system, and the myriad duties with which the police officers present were tasked.
The court also affords “substantial weight” to the “potential dissipation of” the alcohol in defendant's blood. Adkins, 221 N.J. at 303, 113 A.3d 734. Therefore, the court held that the warrantless blood draw did not violate defendant's constitutional rights in this case.
Warrantless blood draw permitted in fatal accident based on exigency
State v. Shayna Zalcberg232 NJ 335 Argued November 6, 2017 -- Decided March 27, 2018 FERNANDEZ-VINA, J., writing for the Court.
In this case, the Court considers whether police officers violated the Fourth Amendmentof the United States Constitution and Article 1, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution when they took a sample of defendant’s blood without a warrant during an investigation of alleged driving while intoxicated.
On the night of July 27, 2011, the Freehold Township Police Department received a report of a motor vehicle accident and dispatched officers to the scene. On their arrival, the officers determined that the accident was serious and called emergency medical and fire personnel for assistance. The police secured the roadway so that no other vehicles could approach the crash in order to render the situation less dangerous for the first responders. Because the accident scene was on a major thoroughfare and the crash coincided with the first night of the heavily trafficked Monmouth County Fair, several officers were deployed to block off access to the road and to direct traffic. They continued to do so throughout the entirety of the accident investigation. All three occupants of defendant’s vehicle were transported via helicopter to Jersey Shore Medical Center for treatment.
Two of the emergency medical personnel expressed their concern to a police officer that defendant had smelled of alcohol. Further, after the top of defendant’s vehicle had been removed, officers observed a miniature bottle of an alcoholic beverage in the vehicle’s console. The officers concluded that there was probable cause to believe that defendant had been driving while under the influence of alcohol. Because defendant was incapacitated as a result of her injuries and therefore unable to undergo field sobriety tests, the officers decided that it would be prudent to obtain a sample of defendant’s blood.
At the time of the accident, it was common practice in the Freehold Township Police Department to take blood samples in serious motor vehicle accidents. Warrants were then available telephonically under New Jersey Court Rule 3:5-3(b), but none of the police officers present believed that a search warrant was required to obtain a blood sample and none of them had been trained in obtaining one. Thus, there was no discussion about obtaining a search warrant for the sample of defendant’s blood. An officer was dispatched to acquire the sample.
The officer arrived at the hospital shortly thereafter and inquired into defendant’s location. The officer was instructed that he would have to wait but was not given an estimate as to how long. About an hour later, the officer was granted access to defendant and requested that a nurse obtain a sample of her blood. The nurse extracted the blood sample and delivered it to the officer.
A grand jury charged defendant with second-degree vehicular homicide, two counts of third-degree assault by auto, and fourth-degree assault by auto. Defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the results of the warrantless blood test. The trial court granted defendant’s motion to suppress in a written opinion. After finding that the officers had probable cause to obtain a blood sample, the judge held that the State failed to establish that an exigency existed sufficient to constitute a recognized exception to the warrant requirement. The judge determined, based upon the totality of the circumstances, that the only exigency the State could establish was the natural metabolization of alcohol in defendant’s blood, which was alone insufficient to justify a warrantless blood draw under Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141(2013), and State v. Adkins, 221 N.J. 300, 303 (2015). An Appellate Division panel affirmed, substantially for the reasons expressed in the trial judge’s written decision. The Court granted the State’s motion for leave to appeal. 229 N.J. 249(2017). HELD: The totality of the circumstances in this case evince an objective exigency, relaxing the need for a warrant and rendering the officer’s warrantless blood draw constitutional.
1. A warrantless search is constitutionally invalid unless one of the few well-delineated exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. The exigent-circumstances exception is frequently cited in connection with warrantless blood draws. In Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757(1966), the United States Supreme Court established that a compelled taking of a blood sample for the purpose of alcohol-content analysis constitutes a search within the Fourth Amendment’s framework. Approximately fifty years later, in McNeely, the Supreme Court clarified that while the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support a finding of exigency in a specific case, as it did in Schmerber, it does not do so categorically. Whether a warrantless blood test of a drunk-driving suspect is reasonable must be determined case by case based on the totality of the circumstances. 569 U.S. at 156
2. Prior to McNeely, New Jersey, like many states, provided de facto, if not de jure, support for law enforcement to believe that alcohol dissipation in and of itself supported a finding of exigency for a warrantless search of bodily fluids in suspected driving-under-the-influence cases. Adkins, 221 N.J. at 303. Based on that pre-McNeely understanding, the defendant in Adkins, suspected of drunk driving, was subjected to a warrantless blood test following a single-car accident. Id. at 302. On appeal, the Court pronounced that McNealy’s directive that courts must evaluate the totality of the circumstances in assessing exigency, one factor of which is the human body’s natural dissipation of alcohol would receive pipeline retroactivity. Id. at 312, 317. The Court directed that reviewing courts must focus on the objective exigency of the circumstances that the officer faced in the situationand stated that the potential dissipation of [blood-alcohol] evidence may be given substantial weight as a factor to be considered in the totality of the circumstancesId. at 303 (emphases added).
3. In State v. Jones, the Appellate Division determined that a warrantless blood draw was constitutional under the totality of the circumstances. 441 N.J. Super. 317, 321 (App. Div. 2015). Jones involved a defendant who caused a three-vehicle accident at a heavily traveled intersection during rush hour. Several police officers, EMS personnel, and firefighters arrived to manage the scene and tend to the occupants of the three vehicles. The defendant was unconscious in her car; it took half an hour to remove her from her vehicle, at which time emergency personnel smelled alcohol on her breath. One officer proceeded to the hospital to follow up on the defendant’s injuries. When the defendant regained consciousness at the hospital, she displayed signs of intoxication, such as slurred speech and inability to answer questions. Moreover, the defendant admitted to the officer that she had consumed alcohol earlier. Approximately one hour and fifteen minutes after the accident occurred, a nurse drew a sample of the defendant’s blood at the officer’s request. The officer did not seek a warrant before ordering the test because he was not required tounder standard procedure and had not received training on telephonic warrants.
4. Here, defendant’s accident was a serious one that occurred on a busy state highway on the night of a nearby event that drew unusually high traffic. Any delay in seeking to obtain defendant’s blood sample after the establishment of probable cause is attributed to the complexity of the situation and the reasonable allocation of limited police resources not a lack of emergent circumstances. The officers’ lack of awareness of any formal procedure through which they could obtain a telephonic warrant, coupled with their belief that they did not need such a warrant, suggests that there was no reasonable availability of a warrant. Accidents do not, per se, create objective exigency, but the circumstances that accompany them may factor into a court’s exigency analysis. The facts of this case, in totality, indicate an objective exigency: a fatal accident with multiple serious injuries, the absence of an established telephonic warrant system, and the myriad duties with which the police officers present were tasked. Substantial weight is also afforded to the potential dissipation ofthe alcohol in defendant’s blood. Adkins, 221 N.J. at 303. The warrantless blood draw did not violate defendant’s constitutional rights in this case.
The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
JUSTICES ALBIN AND TIMPONE, DISSENTING, are of the view that the majority has not applied the principles set forth in McNeely and stress that warrantless searches are presumptively invalid. Justices Albin and Timpone add that a deferential standard of review should guide the Court in reviewing a suppression order. An officer’s ignorance of the law does not justify the violation of a person’s federal constitutional rights, according to Justices Albin and Timpone.