South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Suppresses Blood Test Results in Deadly Felony DUI Case

Case Name: South Carolina vs. Shannon (Orangeburg County, SC; Court of General Sessions; Case Number 2014A3810700545; Filed August 9, 2016)

FACTS:

On February 16, 2014, Shannon and Eartha Lee Kennerly (“Kennerly”) were traveling south on Bozard Road in Orangeburg County. While on Bozard Road, Shannon drove through a stop sign, went off the road, and struck an embankment, causing the vehicle to overturn. Law enforcement and medical personnel responded to the scene shortly thereafter. Kennerly died from internal injuries sustained in the accident. Shannon, however, was coherent, but in pain. While medical personnel were attempting to remove Shannon from the vehicle and stabilize him—a process which took approximately two hours—Officer Norton of the South Carolina Highway Patrol drove to Richland County to obtain a search warrant to conduct a blood test on Shannon.

Officer Norton ultimately obtained a search warrant to conduct the blood test. Although the search warrant was obtained through the proper procedures and signed by the issuing magistrate, it did not contain an affidavit of probable cause signed by Officer Norton. Nevertheless, acting on the warrant, Shannon’s blood was drawn while he was being hospitalized and prior to being arrested. The test revealed that he had alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of the collision. Shannon was later arrested and charged with felony driving under the influence resulting in death.

Shannon filed a motion to suppress the blood test results, arguing that the taking of the blood test without his consent violated the Fourth Amendment and Article I, section 10 of the South Carolina Constitution. The State conceded in oral argument that the search warrant was invalid, but maintains that a search warrant was unnecessary under S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2946. This court heard oral arguments of counsel on November 12, 2015.

ISSUE:

Did the taking of the blood test from the defendant without his consent violate the 4th Amendment and the South Carolina Constitution?

HOLDING:

Yes. For the reasons stated below, this Court grants the defendant’s motion to suppress the blood test results from the trial of this case.

The Fourth Amendment provides, in pertinent part, that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” U.S. Const. Amend. IV. The United States Supreme Court has recognized that the Fourth Amendment “demonstrates a strong preference for searches conducted pursuant to a warrant,” and, except in certain carefully defined classes of cases, a search of a person without proper consent is unreasonable unless it has been authorized by a valid search warrant. Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 699 (1996). “Evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment must be excluded at trial.” State v. Weaver, 374 S.C. 313, 319 (2007).

Here, the blood test administered on Shannon constituted a search and seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. See, e.g., Birchfield v. North Dakota, _U.S._, 136 S.Ct. 2160, 2173 (2016) (“[T]he taking of a blood sample or the administration if a breath test is a search.”); Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S._, 133 S.Ct. 1552, 1558 (2013) (“[T]his Court has never retreated from its recognition that any compelled intrusion into the human body implicates significant, constitutionally protected privacy interests.”); see also Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757, 767-70 (1966) (stating that a court order that allows the government to procure evidence from a person’s body constitutes a search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment). Therefore, in order for the blood test to have complied with the Fourth Amendment’s standard of reasonableness, it must first be determined whether the search warrant authorizing the test was valid and, if not, whether an exception to the warrant requirement is applicable to the case sub judice.

A. The search warrant obtained prior to administering Shannon’s blood test was facially invalid, and law enforcement could not, in good faith, rely on the search warrant in conducting the blood test.

Section 17-13-140 of the South Carolina Code of Laws states that a warrant “shall be issued only upon affidavit sworn before the magistrate. . . establishing grounds for the warrant.” It continues to state that “[i]f the magistrate. . . is satisfied that the grounds for the application exist or that there is probable cause to believe they exist, he shall issue a warrant identifying the property and naming or describing the person or place to be searched.” S.C. Code Ann. § 17-13-140. The United States Supreme Court has noted that reasonable minds frequently may differ on the question of whether a particular affidavit establishes probable cause, and thus has concluded that the preference for warrants is most appropriately effectuated by according “great deference” to a magistrate’s determination. See Spinelli v. United States, 393 U.S. 410, 419 (1969); see also, State v. Jones, 342 S.C. 121, 126 (2000) (“Although great deference must be given to a magistrate’s conclusions, a magistrate may only issue a search warrant upon a finding of probable cause.”). Deference to the magistrate, however, is not boundless. United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 914 (1984). Reviewing courts will not defer to a warrant based on an affidavit that does not provide the magistrate with a substantial basis for determining the existence of probable cause. Id. “Sufficient information must be presented to the magistrate to allow that official to determine probable cause; his action cannot be a mere ratification of the bare conclusions of others.” Id. Additionally, a law enforcement officer cannot, in good faith, rely on a warrant based on an affidavit “so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable.” Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590, 610-11 (1975).

Here, the warrant which authorized the blood test to be performed on Shannon did not contain a signed affidavit setting forth sufficient information to allow the magistrate to determine that probable cause existed. Indeed, the State has even conceded that the search warrant was invalid. The affidavit contains nothing more than the bare conclusions of the officer who obtained the warrant, and there is no signature of the officer attesting to the facts to allow the magistrate to determine that probable cause exists.’ All of this, taken together, renders the search warrant so lacking in indicia of probable cause as to render official belief in its existence entirely unreasonable. See Brown, 422 U.S. at 610-11.

Accordingly, the search warrant which authorized the blood test was invalid, and, because it was so lacking in indicia of probable cause, law enforcement’s reliance on the warrant in conducting the blood test was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

B. The Fourth Amendment generally mandates that a search warrant be obtained prior to administering a blood test of a person suspected of driving under the influence, and, to the extent that S.C. Code Ann. §56-5-2946 per se authorizes such a warrantless search, it is violative of the Fourth Amendment.

Pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2950, a person driving a motor vehicle in South Carolina is deemed to have consented to a warrantless chemical test of his breath, blood, or urine if arrested for an offense arising out of acts alleged to have been committed while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of the two. See id. at 4.56-5-2950(a). The statute further provides that the arresting officer must first assure the individual is offered a breath test, unless “licensed medical personnel” deems such a test unacceptable. Id. In such a case, the officer may request a blood test. jçj A refusal to submit to the test warrants suspension of the person’s drivers’ license regardless of the outcome of the criminal prosecution for the underlying offense. See S.C. Code Ann. §56-5-2951.

Section 56-5—2946 of the South Carolina Code of Laws provides for the following: Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person must submit to either one or a combination of chemical tests of his breath, blood, or urine for the purpose of determining the presence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of alcohol or drugs if there is probable cause to believe that the person violated or is under arrest for a violation of Section 56-5-2945.

Id. (emphasis added); see also S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2945 (codifying the offense of felony driving under the influence and prescribing the fines and penalties associated with a conviction thereof). Pursuant to Section 56-5-2946, the officer administering the test need no longer offer a breath test as the first option, nor must he obtain that such a test is not feasible before ordering a test or sample. Id.; see also State v. Long, 363 S.C. 360, 363 (2005) (holding that the officer was not required to offer a breath test or receive a medical opinion before ordering the blood test).

However, although Section 56-5-2946 requires a driver suspected of having committed felony driving under the influence to submit to either a breath, blood, or urine test “notwithstanding any other provision of law,” the aforementioned statute must still comport with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. In essence, the “notwithstanding any other provision of law” language in Section 56-5-2946 cannot operate to provide less protection than that provided for by the Fourth Amendment. See, e.g., State v. Forrester, 343 S.C. 637, 643 (2001) (“[T]he federal Constitution sets the floor for individual rights while the state constitution establishes the ceiling.”). Therefore, it must be determined whether administering a warrantless blood test in this case complied with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.

In Birchfield, the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Fourth Amendment does not, in the absence of exigent circumstances, permit warrantless blood tests incident to arrests for drunk driving. _U.S.at -, 136 S.Ct. at 2185. In so holding, the Court noted that blood tests are significantly more intrusive than breath tests, as “[t]hey require piercing the skin and extract a part of the subject’s body.” Id. at 2178. The Court further stated that “[n]othing prevents the police from seeking a warrant for a blood test when there is sufficient time to do so in the particular circumstances or from relying on the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement when there is not.” Id. at 2184.

Also, in McNeely, the Supreme Court of the United States held that “[i]n those drunkdriving investigations 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.” 569 U.S. at -, 133 S.Ct. at 1561 (emphasis added).

Further, the Court held that certain circumstances may make obtaining a warrant impractical such that the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream will support an exigency finding in a specific case. Id. The Court distinguished Schmerber, however, stating that the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not categorically constitute an exigency in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant. Id. at 1568; see Schmerber, 384 U.S. at 770 (holding that the warrantless blood test “in the present case” was nonetheless permissible because the officer “might reasonably have believed that he was confronted with an emergency, in which the delay necessary to obtain a warrant, under the circumstances, threatened the destruction of evidence”). Therefore, the Court proclaimed that, given the fact-specific nature of the reasonableness inquiry under the Fourth Amendment, each case of the alleged exigency should be evaluated on its own facts and circumstances. Id. at 1559.

Here, Shannon was ultimately arrested for felony driving under the influence resulting in death, and the State relies on S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2946 and, specifically, State v. Long, in maintaining that securing a warrant prior to the blood test was unnecessary. However, in consideration of the above, this court concludes that the warrantless blood test was violative of the Fourth Amendment. Looking to the facts and circumstances of this case, law enforcement had ample time to secure a search warrant, as it took approximately two hours to remove Shannon from the vehicle and stabilize him. Further, there is nothing to suggest that obtaining a search warrant would have significantly undermined the efficacy of the search. Indeed, law enforcement actually secured a search warrant, albeit an invalid one, before conducting the blood test. Their doing so obviated any exigency, thus precluding a compelling need for warrantless official action and the assertion that there was no time to secure a search warrant.

Therefore, after consideration of the totality of the circumstances, this court finds that the warrantless, nonconsensual blood test administered upon Shannon violated the Fourth Amendment. Because of this, the unreasonable search also violated Article I, section 10 of the South Carolina Constitution. See S.C. Const., art. I, § 10.2; see also Weaver, 374 S.C. at 321-22. In light of the foregoing, to the extent that South Carolina’s implied consent laws categorically authorize the administering of a blood test without a search warrant or in the absence of an exception to the warrant requirement, such laws are violative of the Fourth Amendment and Article I, section 10 of the South Carolina Constitution.

CONCLUSION:

Accordingly, for the reasons stated above, this court GRANTS Shannon’s motion to suppress the blood test results.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

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