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In Utah, a peace officer may draw a person’s blood without a warrant if the state can show by a totality of the circumstances that both probable cause and exigent circumstances justified the warrantless blood draw.

Probable Cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the peace officer’s knowledge, and of which they have reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient in themselves to warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been-or is being-committed.[1] Probable cause is evaluated under the totality of the circumstances, and deals with probabilities and certain common-sense conclusions about human behavior formulated by peace officers.[2] However, where a search intrudes beyond the human body’s surface, the interests of “dignity and privacy” require “a clear indication” that the desired evidence will be found.[3]

An exigent circumstance exists where there is an urgency to acquire evidence that falls outside the ordinary course of law enforcement.  Generally exigent circumstances exist if: (1) there is a good chance that evidence will be destroyed or concealed if the peace officer takes the time to procure a warrant; (2) It is likely that the suspect will flee if the peace officer takes the time to procure a warrant; or (3) there is a real danger to the people if the peace officer takes the time to procure a warrant.  The rationale for permitting warrantless searches under such circumstances is that extreme situations dictate that peace officers act quickly, when there is no time to secure a warrant.

In State v. Tripp and State v. Rodriguez the Utah Supreme Court granted, writs of certiorari to address the Utah Court of Appeals decisions regarding the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement in relation to blood draws.

In State v. Tripp, the Utah Supreme Court held that the State of Utah had failed to demonstrate under the totality of the circumstances that probable cause existed to justify a warrantless blood draw.[4] And, that the Utah Court of Appeals correctly suppressed the results of the warrantless blood draw.

The relevant facts in Tripp, where:  Defendant was involved in an accident that caused a death; The peace officers that interviewed the defendant did not observe signs of impairment; When questioned, the defendant denied having consumed alcohol or any prescription medications; Defendant refused to take a blood draw but consented to a urinalysis (However, the peace officers never administered a urinalysis test); The victim advocate detected the odor of alcohol but never informed the peace officers; The victim advocate observed defendant crying uncontrollably;  the victim advocate, who was with the defendant observed the defendant smoke one cigarette; The detective observed that the defendant’s eyes were red but did not see her cry; and The detective felt that the defendant lacked concern for the victim of the accident. Based on his observations, the detective-without a warrant-had a technician draw a sample of defendant’s blood that would later reveal a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.

Based on these facts, the State of Utah charged the defendant with automobile homicide.  Subsequently, the defendant was found guilty of automobile homicide. Defendant appealed the Utah District Courts ruling denying her motion to suppress the blood evidence.  The Utah Court of Appeals reversed the district courts denial of defendant’s motion to suppress the blood evidence.

Before the Utah Supreme Court the State of Utah argued that the Utah Court of Appeals ignored the following facts: Defendant’s red eyes were a sign of impairment; Defendants continuous smoking was used to mask the odor of alcohol; and Defendants lack of concern suggested her preoccupation with guilt.  Also, the State of Utah argued that the defendant failed to yield the right of way to the victim despite an apparently unobstructed view of the intersection.  Finally, the State of Utah argued the victim advocate detected an odor of alcohol on defendant’s breath.

The Utah Supreme Court reasoned that the State of Utah isolated a few facts within the totality of the circumstances to the exclusion of others.  The testimony revealed that the defendant was in fact crying.  Although alcohol could have accounted for her red eyes, her crying was equally, if not more plausible, reason for her red eyes.  Similarly, testimony from the victim advocate, who was with the defendant for nearly the entire time, revealed that the defendant had only one cigarette, and that she smoked the cigarette to calm herself. These facts did not create a basis for probable cause.  Nor did these facts clearly indicate sufficient impairment to justify an intrusion into defendant’s body.  Accordingly, the State of Utah failed to demonstrate under the totality of the circumstances that probable cause existed.

In State v. Rodriguez, the Utah Supreme Court found that the State of Utah did meet its obligation to show that under the totality of the circumstances both probable cause and exigent circumstances justified the peace officer’s warrantless blood draw.[5] And, that the Utah Court of Appeals was incorrect in suppressing the results of the warrantless blood draw.

The relevant facts in Rodriguez, where:  Defendant’s passenger died; The paramedic treating defendant detected the odor of alcohol on the defendant and reported it to the peace officers; When the peace officers searched defendant’s purse they found a partially empty bottle of vodka; and At the hospital the peace officer observed signs of inebriation. Specifically, the defendant’s speech was slurred, her eyes where blood-shot, and her demeanor was uncooperative and belligerent.  Based on this, the peace officers-without a warrant-had a technician draw a sample of defendant’s blood that would later reveal a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.

Based on these facts, the State of Utah charged the defendant with automobile homicide.  Subsequently, the defendant plead guilty to automobile homicide, reserving the right to appeal the district court’s denial of her motion to suppress the blood evidence. The Utah Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion to suppress.

In reversing the Utah Court of Appeals, the Utah Supreme Court stated that one fact dominated all others with respect to its relevance as to whether the warrantless blood draw was reasonable: that the victim was expected to succumb to her injuries.  This fact significantly altered the warrant acquisition calculus that a reasonable peace officer who had probable cause to believe an alcohol-related offense had occurred could be expected to apply.  The severity of the possible alcohol-related offense bears directly on the presence or absence of an exigency sufficient to justify a blood draw without a warrant.

In this case, the evidence supporting the conclusion that probable cause existed to believe that the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the accident is overwhelming.  The peace officers found an open bottle of vodka at the scene; the peace officer observed slurred speech; bloodshot eyes; and an odor of alcohol on defendant at the hospital.  The likelihood that the blood draw would detect alcohol was great.  The Utah Supreme Court agreed with the Utah District Court that the seriousness of the accident, coupled with the compelling evidence of defendant’s alcohol impairment, was sufficient to establish that the interest of law enforcement outweighed-in this instance-defendant’s privacy interests.

[1] State v. Dorsey, 731 P.2d 1085 (1986)
[2] Ill v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213 (1983)
[3] Schmerber v. Cal., 384 U.S. 757 (1966)
[4] State v. Tripp, 227 P.3d 1251 (2010)
[5] State v. Rodriguez, 156 P.3d 771 (2007)