The Pa. Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Trahey, No. 730 EDA 2017 (March 26, 2018), holding that it was error for the trial court not to conduct an objective inquiry of the totality of the circumstances to determine whether exigent circumstances justified the officers’ warrantless testing of Trahey’s blood during a homicide by vehicle while DUI investigation.
Trahey was the operator of a motor vehicle that struck a bicycle and fatally injured its rider. Due to numerous time constraints including, among others, a mis-prioritization of the initial dispatch; lack of manpower; Trahey’s dissipating [BAC] evidence; and, difficulty in obtaining a warrant to obtain Trahey’s blood, police obtained his verbal consent to a blood test. He was subsequently charged with homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, homicide by vehicle, involuntary manslaughter, and DUI. Trahey thereafter filed a pretrial suppression motion, in which he claimed the police had subjected him to an unlawful search by seeking warrantless blood testing.
The trial court granted Trahey’s Motion. First, it found that pursuant to Birchfield v. North Dakota, —U.S.—, 136 S.Ct. 1535 (2016), Trahey’s consent to the blood test was invalid based on the fact that he was warned that his failure to consent could result in criminal penalties if convicted of DUI. Second, while the suppression court acknowledged the responding officers faced circumstances that placed time constraints on their ability to seek a warrant to obtain useful blood test results, the suppression court refused to address whether exigent circumstances justified the warrantless blood test. Instead, the suppression court emphasized that the officers had originally explained that they did not apply for a warrant because they believed Trahey had given valid consent to the blood test by signing the consent form.
The Commonwealth appealed the suppression of the evidence, arguing that the lower court erred in suppressing the blood test results because the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement justified the warrantless testing of Trahey’s blood.
In granting Trahey’s suppression motion, the lower court determined that the officers subjected him to an unlawful search when they compelled him to submit to a warrantless blood test. Additionally, it found Trahey’s consent to blood testing to be invalid because he had been warned that he would face criminal consequences if he refused to submit to blood testing.
The Superior Court noted that “it is well-established that the ‘administration of a blood test … performed by an agent of, or at the direction of the government’ constitutes a search under both the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions.” However, it also noted that the suppression court refused to determine whether the exigent circumstance exception was applicable in this case. Rather, the lower court found that the officers did not contemplate justifying their warrantless blood testing on exigent circumstances in Trahey’s case because they believed that they had obtained his valid consent to the blood testing.
In rejecting the lower court’s analysis, the Superior Court found that the suppression court should have conducted an objective inquiry of the totality of the circumstances to determine whether exigent circumstances justified the officers’ warrantless testing of Trahey’s blood. In fact, the Superior Court concluded that the facts and circumstances presented in this case were sufficient to create a reason 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.
Accordingly, the Court concluded that the suppression court erred in concluding that the exigent circumstances doctrine did not justify the warrantless testing of Trahey’s blood.
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