The Massachusetts Appeals Court today clarified the standard required for a police officer to obtain a blood sample from a person who is being investigated for driving under the influence of alcohol. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Dennis.
Two Ludlow police officers responded to the scene of a car accident one evening at just past midnight. They found the defendant, who was unconscious in his car that had crashed into a telephone pole. The defendant was removed from his car and regained consciousness. He admitted he had been drinking and the officers saw several empty alcohol containers in the car. The defendant also smelled like alcohol. An ambulance arrived and transported the defendant to a Springfield hospital. One of the officers rode with the defendant in the ambulance and was with him in the hospital. During the ambulance ride, the officer read the defendant his Miranda warnings and arrested him for operating under the influence of alcohol The defendant again confessed he had been drinking and said he was guilty. The officer asked the defendant to consent to a blood test, but a nurse said he was not yet medically cleared to consent. About two and a half hours later, the officer read the defendant a document called the statutory rights and consent form. This document is read to everyone who is under arrest for OUI, and it advises the arrestee that the police want him to submit to a chemical test to determine his blood alcohol concentration. The form goes on to advise the arrestee that refusing to consent to a test will result in a license suspension. The defendant in this case signed the form, signaling he agreed to submit to a chemical test, and blood was thereafter drawn.
Once the defendant’s case was pending in court, he moved to suppress the results of the blood test (the opinion does not mention the defendant’s blood alcohol content, but it’s fair to assume the blood test result was not favorable for him). A district court judge denied his motion, ruling that he had consented to the blood test. The defendant appealed and the Appeals Court reversed.
The Court began by noting that drawing a defendant’s blood constitutes a seizure and search under the federal constitution. Therefore, the police either need a warrant to seize a suspect’s blood, or the government must establish there is some exception to the warrant requirement. Recent United States Supreme Court opinions have made clear that cops are required to obtain a warrant, even though blood alcohol quickly dissipates. Given the steady reduction of blood alcohol concentration once someone stops drinking, the government had argued the exigency exception to the warrant requirement should apply, but the Supreme Court said in most cases a warrant is still required. There is one scenario where a warrant is not necessary – when the defendant consents to provide a blood sample, which is what the Commonwealth alleged happened in this case. However, the defendant argued his consent was not voluntary because when the cop read him the form requesting a “chemical test,” it did not specify the test involved drawing his blood (as opposed, for example, to testing his breath or his urine). The Appeals Court agreed, and ruled that because the defendant did not give actual, voluntary consent to give a sample of his blood, the procedure constituted an illegal seizure and search. Therefore, the defendant’s motion to suppress should have been allowed.
The case will now return to the trial court. The Commonwealth will likely still prosecute the defendant on the remaining evidence, which appears somewhat strong, and the defendant will need to decide if he now wants to go to trial.