Warrantless blood draw from suspect in DUI justified by medical emergency
People v. Nault (Cal. Ct. App., Dec. 20, 2021, No. B306460) 2021 WL 5997961, at *1–3
Summary: Nault, driving whiledrunk after four previous DUI convictions tried to pass an 18-wheeler on a narrow road. Nault’s pickup hit an oncoming car and killed its driver. While Nault was unconscious from the crash, police took a warrantless sample of his blood. Nault argues this violated the Fourth Amendment. The court of appeal affirmed but direct the trial court to stay a second sentence under Penal Code section 654.
Prior DUI Convictions: At his 2020 trial, Nault stipulated to four DUI convictions between 2000 and 2009. On August 11, 2017, a park ranger found Nault digging his pickup out of beach sand. Nault was stumbling about and he sounded and smelled drunk. He refused field sobriety tests and a blood test. He told the ranger to arrest him and said his blood alcohol content was over 0.08 percent because he drank a Four Loko. The ranger arrested Nault and impounded his truck. Nault’s license was suspended.
2017 DUI: On October 27, 2017, because the tow yard would not release the truck to him while his license was suspended, paid a stranger $100 to show the tow yard a valid license that did not belong to Nault. Once the stranger got the truck released, Nault drove it away.
Later that day, Doval was driving his 18-wheeler on a two-lane road with a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. Doval was behind another 18-wheeler. Both were traveling about 50 miles per hour. It was dark.
In his rear view, Doval saw Nault’s headlights. Nault was trying to pass Doval at 70 miles per hour. Doval slowed to let him pass. The truck ahead of Doval blocked the view.
In the opposite lane, a Honda Civic appeared, driving towards Nault. Seeing Nault’s pickup coming straight at her in her lane, the Honda driver locked her brakes. Nault’s pickup hit the Honda, crushing the driver to death.
Doval found the Honda driver dead and Nault. Who smelled strongly of alcohol unconscious in his driver’s seat. Doval pulled Nault out of the burning pickup.
California Highway Patrol Officer Carlos Burgos-Lopez arrived at the accident where Nault now was semiconscious in an ambulance. His pants were soaked with alcohol. Burgos-Lopez asked Nault what he had been drinking and Nault said, “Beer.” His speech was “thick.”
Nault’s injuries prevented him from giving Burgos-Lopez a complete statement and he would be hospitalized for days.
Burgos-Lopez went to get the breathalyzer from his cruiser. When he returned, medics were moving Nault to a helicopter for emergency evacuation, which prevented Burgos-Lopez from using the breathalyzer.
Burgos-Lopez stayed at the scene to investigate. He determined the accident’s cause was Nault’s driving under the influence at an unsafe speed and trying to pass with too little room. Burgos-Lopez then followed Nault to the hospital.
Officer Riley Beckinger was assigned him the investigation and arrived at the hospital and found Nault unconscious Nault. Beckinger detected a strong a strong smell of alcohol on Nault. The medical staff said they would take Nault into surgery soon. Beckinger knew he had no time to get a warrant before the surgery, so he asked a nurse to draw Nault’s blood and said he would get a warrant later . A nurse took two blood samples.
Beckinger received the warrant that night and delivered it to the hospital the next morning.
Analysis of the blood revealed that at 9:11 p.m., about two hours after the crash, Nault’s blood alcohol content was 0.14 percent-twice the legal limit.
Nault argued the analysis was inadmissible because officers got the samples without a warrant. The court held exigent circumstances justified the blood draws.
A jury convicted Nault of second degree murder (Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a)) (count 1) and gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated (id., § 191.5, subd. (a)) (count 2). Nault pleaded no contest to driving a vehicle with a suspended license (Veh. Code, § 14601.5, subds. (a) & (d)(2)) (count 3) and admitted four prior convictions for driving under the influence (Veh. Code, § 23152, subds. (a) & (b); see Pen. Code, § 191.5, subd. (d)).
The court sentenced Nault to 15 years to life in state prison for count 1, with a concurrent term of 15 years to life for count 2, and to one year in county jail for count 3.
Constitutionality of the blood draw
The court independently review the constitutionality of the search. (People v. Meza (2018) 23 Cal.App.5th 604, 609, 232 Cal.Rptr.3d 894 (Meza) under Federal law. (See People v. Souza (1994) 9 Cal.4th 224, 232–233, 36 Cal.Rptr.2d 569, 885 P.2d 982.)
A blood draw is a search governed by the Fourth Amendment. (Birchfield v. North Dakota (2016) 579 U.S. 438, ––––, 136 S.Ct. 2160, 2173, 195 L.Ed.2d 560.) A warrantless blood draw is presumed unreasonable unless justified by a recognized exception. (U.S. Const., 4th Amend.; Missouri v. McNeely (2013) 569 U.S. 141, 148, 133 S.Ct. 1552, 185 L.Ed.2d 696.) One such exception is exigent circumstances, when an emergency makes law enforcement needs so compelling that a warrantless search is objectively reasonable. (McNeely, at pp. 148–149, 133 S.Ct. 1552.)
Loss of blood alcohol evidence is an exigency
Circumstances are exigent when blood alcohol evidence is dissipating and a pressing health, safety, or law enforcement need takes priority over a warrant application. (Mitchell v. Wisconsin (2019) ––– U.S. ––––, 139 S.Ct. 2525, 2537, 204 L.Ed.2d 1040 (plur. opn. of Alito, J.) (Mitchell); Schmerber v. California (1966) 384 U.S. 757, 770–771, 86 S.Ct. 1826, 16 L.Ed.2d 908.) The fact the human body continuously metabolizes alcohol is not enough. (Mitchell, at p. 2537.)
When a driver is unconscious, the general rule is a warrant is not needed. (Mitchell, supra, 139 S.Ct. at p. 2531.) The Fourth Amendment “almost always” permits a warrantless blood test when police officers do not have a reasonable opportunity for a breath test before hospitalization. (Id. at p. 2539.)
The general rule governs here. Exigent circumstances justified this blood draw.
Nault created the exigency and he was unconscious and had to be helicoptered to surgery.Nault’s medical need left no time for a breath test.
Nault also contends, and the prosecution agrees, his sentence for count 2 should be stayed pursuant to Penal Code section 654, which bars multiple punishments for the same act.. (See People v. Sanchez (2001) 24 Cal.4th 983, 988, 992, 103 Cal.Rptr.2d 698, 16 P.3d 118.)
The court of appeal directed . the trial court to stay the sentence for count 2 pursuant to Penal Code section 654 and to forward a corrected copy of the abstract of judgment to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. No hearing or presence of parties is necessary. We affirm the judgment in all other respects.