On March 26, 2018, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the trial court must conduct an objective inquiry to determine whether exigent circumstances justify police officers engaging in a warrantless blood test. This inquiry must rely on the totality of the circumstances present in each DUI investigation.
In Commonwealth v. Trahey, Trahey was driving a motor vehicle that hit a cyclist and caused fatal injuries. The police were not dispatched until forty-five minutes later, and bystanders on the scene informed them that Trahey was the driver. Police officers noticed that he slurred his speech, smelled of alcohol, and staggered in his gait. After approximately thirty minutes on the scene of the accident, the officers arrested Trahey for a DUI and sent him immediately for a blood test. The Officer then informed Trahey of Pennsylvania’s implied consent statute that includes criminal consequences for a DUI suspect if he refuses to submit to blood testing. Trahey acknowledged this warning and gave consent to the blood testing.
Trahey was charged with homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, homicide by vehicle, involuntary manslaughter, and DUI. He claimed that the police officer’s blood test was unlawful and warrantless. The trial court found that Trahey’s consent was invalid due to the criminal consequences in Pennsylvania’s implied consent statute and suppressed the blood test evidence. Additionally, the suppression court did not address whether exigent circumstances justified the warrantless blood test.
The Commonwealth appealed the suppression of the blood test evidence, arguing that the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement justified the testing of Trahey’s blood in this circumstance.
The Superior Court held that there must be an objective inquiry to determine whether the exigent circumstances exception is justified in obtaining a warrantless blood test. The exigent circumstances exception “applied 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.” One of the circumstances that this exception allows includes prevention of the imminent destruction of evidence.
The facts and circumstances in Trahey include the impractical time constraint to successfully obtain a warrant, the lack of manpower to seek a warrant at the time of arrest, and the difficulty of finding a commissioner to approve the warrant request. The Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded that based on these facts and circumstances, it was reasonable to believe that the officers were confronted with exigent circumstances in the potential delay to obtain a warrant, so as to threaten destruction of the blood test evidence.
To read Commonwealth v. Trahey in full, see:
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The fourth amendment affords citizens the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, except when a warrant is issued and supported by probable cause. One exception to the requirement of a warrant is when there are exigent circumstances, such as concern for the destruction of evidence. If you are being charged with a DUI or are concerned about your fourth amendment rights, call Fairlie & Lippy P.C. at (215) 997-1000.