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)