Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reverses trial court’s suppression of warrantless blood draw

Upon reconsideration of State v. Brown, No. W2014-00162-CCA-R9-CD (Tenn. Crim. App. Apr. 30, 2015), in light of State v. Reynolds, 504 S.W.3d 283 (Tenn. 2016), the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed a trial court’s suppression of a warrantless blood draw because the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied.  A blood draw is a search protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution.  Because our constitutions protect against unreasonable searches, the State must generally obtain a warrant prior to conducting a search.  If the State does not obtain a warrant, the search will be presumed unreasonable and the results will be suppressed “unless the State demonstrates that the search or seizure was conducted pursuant to one of the narrowly defined exceptions to the warrant requirement.”  State v. Yeargan, 958 S.W.2d 626, 629 (Tenn. 1997) (citing Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 454-55 (1971).  These exceptions include “search incident to arrest, plain view, stop and frisk, hot pursuit, search under exigent circumstances, and . . . consent to search.”  State v. Cox, 171 S.W.3d 174, 179 (Tenn. 2005).

While exigent circumstances is an exception to the warrant requirement, it is unclear when exigent circumstances applies in warrantless blood draw cases.  Five decades ago, the United States Supreme Court upheld a warrantless blood draw based on exigent circumstances where it took time to investigate the scene of an accident and bring the defendant to a hospital and there was no time to seek out a magistrate and obtain a warrant.  Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966).  Afterwards, some states interpreted Schmerber narrowly, applying a totality of the circumstances test to determine whether exigent circumstances existed.  Other states, including Tennessee, interpreted Schmerber broadly as creating a per se rule equating alcohol dissipation to exigent circumstances.

Four years ago, the United States Supreme Court decided the Schmerber “state split” in Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013).  In McNeely, the Court rejected the per se rule and determined that the existence of exigent circumstances “must be determined case by case based on the totality of the circumstances.”  The Court emphasized that “where police officers can reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample can be drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so.”

Last year, the Tennessee Supreme Court decided Reynolds, which involved a 2011 accident that killed two people.  The deputy in Reynolds spoke with the defendant and the surviving passenger and believed that the defendant had consented to a blood draw.  Thus, without obtaining a warrant or advising the defendant that she could refuse the blood draw, the deputy ordered medical personnel to obtain a sample of the defendant’s blood.  Examining the case, the Court determined that the warrantless blood draw violated the defendant’s constitutional right “to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures because the record failed to establish that the defendant had the capacity to revoke her statutory implied consent.”  Nonetheless, the Court upheld the warrantless blood draw by adopting the good-faith exception to the warrant requirement.  Applying the good-faith exception, the Court determined that the deputy’s actions were justified because, at the time of the warrantless blood draw, Tennessee interpreted Schmerber as establishing a rule that the natural dissipation of alcohol within the bloodstream created an exigent circumstance justifying a warrantless blood draw in every drunk driving case.  Consequently, whether the officer realized it or not, his actions were in objectively reasonable good-faith reliance on binding appellate precedent.

Applying the reasoning in Reynolds to the case before it, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals held that the good-faith exception to the warrant requirement justified the defendant’s warrantless blood draw.  Like in Reynolds, the warrantless blood draw in this case took place in 2011 when warrantless blood draws were per se reasonable in DUI cases.  Accordingly, the officer acted in objectively reasonable good faith reliance on binding appellate precedent when conducting the search, and therefore, the good-faith exception to the warrant requirement applied.  Since an exception applied, the court of criminal appeals reversed the trial court’s suppression of the BAC results and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

State v. Brown, No. W2014-00162-CCA-R9-CD (Tenn. Crim. App. Dec. 1, 2017)

Attorney-at-Law in Celina, Tennessee

Are you looking for a lawyer in Celina, Tennessee?  If so, I may be able to help you.  While my Clay County practice focuses on criminal defense, I also handle estate planning, juvenile, family law, contracts, real estate, social security disability, and other matters.  If I can’t help you, I may be able to direct you to another attorney that you can talk to.  See, my purpose isn’t to take your money and run.  I want you to find the best representation that you can, whether that’s with me or someone else.  That’s why I have a list of Upper Cumberland law firms on my website.

My mission is rather simple.  I provide high quality representation at an affordable price to people throughout the Upper Cumberland and Sequatchie Valley.  It isn’t just about making money because people matter.  The people of Clay County and Celina matter.

My family on my mom’s side is from Van Buren County, Tennessee.  As a child, I remember long car rides up to Clay County to watch our teams compete in basketball.  Celina was great then, and from what I hear, they are still great.  Van Buren now makes the state tournament regularly.  Why am I talking about basketball on a law firm website?  Because these are not just places where I make money.  They are places that I grew up, where I have fond memories.  That’s why I love practicing law in the Upper Cumberland.  If I can reach some people and help them understand their legal options, they are more likely to “buy in” to our system.  There are fewer repeat offenders.  Parents come together to develop plans that are best for their children.  Small businesses form.  Young couples buy homes to raise their children in.  These are the real reasons to practice law, and when they happen in a region that you call home, it’s all the more enjoyable.

Now that you know what my law firm is about, I hope that you give me a call if you need an attorney-at-law in Celina, Tennessee.

 

Young boy killed in White County car crash

The Nashville news and Spartalive.com are reporting that a three-year-old boy was killed in a December 2nd car crash in White County, Tennessee.  Reportedly, a 2011 Ford went over one embankment and struck another embankment.  The vehicle had 10-month-old female, a 3-year-old male, and a 25-year-old female inside.  All three occupants were transported to Vanderbilt Medical Center, and the 3-year-old later died from injuries suffered in the crash.  According to Spartalive.com, the Tennessee Highway Patrol report states that the minors’ safety restraints were not properly used, and criminal charges are pending.

While it is a bit early to speculate about the criminal charges, criminally negligent homicide comes to mind.  Criminally negligent homicide is “[c]riminally negligent conduct that results in death.”  T.C.A. § 39-13-212).  It is a Class E felony.  Under Tennessee Code Annotated Section 39-11-106(a)(4), “criminal negligence”:

[R]efers to a person who acts with criminal negligence with respect to the circumstances surrounding that person’s conduct or the result of that conduct when the person ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the accused person’s standpoint[.]

The key questions here are (1) whether the improper use of the safety restraints was a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the child would die in a crash, (2) whether the driver should have been aware of that risk, and (3) whether the failure to be aware of the risk is a gross deviation from the standard of care of an ordinary person.  Assuming that this is why the THP is looking into criminal charges, it is going to be extremely fact specific.  Apparently, the children were buckled in, just not properly.  Perhaps, the buckles were too loose or the chest piece wasn’t quite where it should have been.  If that is the case, it’s going to be difficult to prove that that is a gross deviation from the care an ordinary person would use buckling a child into a seat.  How many of you actually know the proper amount of tightness that a belt should have in a child safety seat?

With that said, this is all speculation at this point.  Perhaps, the driver was speeding or drinking.  That would make the State’s case much stronger and would most likely lead to more serious charges.

This will be an interesting case to follow.  Stay tuned!

Six arrested in bust of coordinated drug operation in Overton County, Tennesse

On December 7, 2017, the TBI Newsroom reported that a joint investigation between the Bureau, the Overton County Sheriff’s Department, and multiple local law enforcement agencies led to the arrest of six individuals for the sale and delivery of various narcotics.  Three of the defendants are from Cookeville.  Two of the defendants are from Livingston.  One of the defendants is from Byrdstown.  The charges include the sale of a Schedule II drug, the sale of a Schedule III drug, and the sale of a Schedule IV drug in a Drug-Free School Zone.

The sale of a Schedule II drug is a Class B felony if the drug is cocaine or meth in an amount over 0.5 grams or if a deadly weapon was carried or used during the commission of the offense.  See T.C.A. § 39-17-417.  Otherwise, it’s a Class C felony (with the exception of large amounts).  Depending on a defendant’s classification, the sentencing range for a Class B felony is eight to thirty years and the sentencing range for a Class C felony is three to fifteen years.

With the exception of large amounts, the sale of a Schedule III drug is a Class D felony, which depending on a defendant’s classification, carries a sentence of two to twelve years.

Finally, the sale of a Schedule IV drug in a Drug-Free School Zone is a Class C felony if the drug is flunitrazepam.  Otherwise, it’s a Class D felony (once again, see the exception for large amounts).  Also, the fact that it’s in a drug-free school zone enhances the punishment.  See T.C.A. § 39-17-432.  Specifically, a defendant convicted of a drug offense within a drug-free school zone is required to serve at least the minimum sentence for the defendant’s appropriate range of sentence.  While the minimum sentence varies based on the defendant’s classification and the class of the felony, this enhancement is quite huge.  For example, for a Range I defendant, a Class C felony carries a sentence of three to six years with parole eligibility at 30%.  Accordingly, a Range I defendant serving a Class C felony sentence could possibly get out after serving only 0.9 years.  On the other hand, if the offense occurred within a drug-free school zone, the defendant would have to serve three years before being eligible for parole.

Given the serious time that these defendants are facing, hopefully they’ll lawyer up as soon as possible.

First-degree murder conviction reversed after trial court refused to admit co-defendant’s statements against interest

In an appellate win for Sparta attorney Michael J. Rocco and Spencer attorney Matthew S. Bailey, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed a first-degree murder conviction in White County, Tennessee.  For my readers in the Upper Cumberland, you may remember this story as the Dollar General Murder.

The case involved two co-defendants who killed a woman at the Dollar General Store in northern White County and the defendant who allegedly set up and encouraged the murder.  At trial, the State showed that the defendant’s cell phone sent text messages to the victim that lured her to the Dollar General Store.  The defendant’s cell phone also sent text messages to one of the co-defendants encouraging the murder.  Seems pretty cut and dry, right?  If the defendant set up and encouraged the murder, why is the court of criminal appeals reversing the case?

Here’s why.  The co-defendant who received messages from the defendant’s phone told police that she had used the defendant’s phone to set up the deal.  Not only did she admit to having the phone, the co-defendant even corrected police on a specific detail that the defendant allegedly texted to the victim.  The detective asked the co-defendant, “[W]as anything said . . . in the text messages like I’m sending my girl,” to which the co-defendant responded, “[M]y lady.”  The actual text message from the defendant’s phone to the victim’s phone said “my lady.”  Furthermore, the other co-defendant and another witness saw the co-defendant with two phones the night of the murder.

At a motion in limine hearing, the trial court excluded the co-defendant’s statements as hearsay, finding that the statement against interest exception did not apply.  The trial court reasoned that a full confession was needed for a statement against interest.

On appeal, however, the appellate court noted that the statement against interest exception does not require a full confession.  See Tennessee Rule of Evidence 804(b).  It only requires an admission.  Here, the codefendant made five statements that were against her interest, and thus, should have been admitted.  Specifically, she (1) admitted that she used the defendant’s phone to set up the deal, (2) stated that she had the defendant’s phone, (3) claimed she pretended to be the defendant and that the defendant did not send her, (4) knew the specific content of the text messages sent from the defendant’s phone to the victim’s phone, and (5) claimed the defendant had no involvement on what transpired the night of the murder.  The court of criminal appeals analyzed each of these statements and determined that, while they were not full confessions, they were against the co-defendant’s interest because they implicated her in the murder.  Accordingly, they should have been admitted into evidence for the jury to consider.

Having determined that the trial court erred by not allowing the jury to hear the co-defendant’s statements that she had the defendant’s phone on the night in question, the appellate court then turned to whether the error was harmless or prejudicial.  “Improperly admitted evidence is reviewed under a non-constitutional harmless error analysis.”  To prove that a non-constitutional error is prejudicial, the defendant must show that the error “more probably than not affected the judgment or would result in prejudice to the judicial process.”  State v. Rodriguez, 254 S.W.3d 361, 372 (Tenn. 2008) (quoting Tenn. R. App. P. 36(b)).  In analyzing whether failing to admit the statements affected the judgment, the court noted that the defendant repeatedly claimed that she was not in possession of her phone on the night in question.  Furthermore, the co-defendant stated she had the defendant’s phone and that she pretended to be the defendant to set up the meeting with the victim.  Moreover, the other co-defendant and another witness testified that they both saw the co-defendant with two phones the night of the murder.  Finally, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals noted that there was no physical evidence linking the defendant to the victim’s murder.  In other words, it all came down to who had the defendant’s phone when the victim was killed.  Given the entire case hinged on that question, the erroneous exclusion of the co-defendant’s statements more probably than not affected the jury’s outcome and resulted in prejudice to the judicial process.  Reversed.

State v. Young, No. M2016-01149-CCA-R3-CD (Dec. 7, 2017)