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Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Exigent Circumstances Exception Does Not Justify Police’s Warrantless Seizure of Suspect’s Blood Sample by Hospital Staff

by Jacob Barrett

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upheld a Superior Court’s decision that a blood sample taken by hospital staff must be suppressed because neither the exigent circumstances nor implied consent exceptions to the warrant requirement apply to justify the warrantless seizure.

Akim Jones-Williams drove his car at about 2 m.p.h. over a set of railroad tracks as a train was approaching. The train collided with the car and carried it nearly a quarter of a mile before stopping. His fiancé, Cori Sisti, and their daughter, S.J., were passengers during the incident.

When emergency personnel arrived, Jones-Williams had already exited the car, but Sisti and S.J. were still inside. Medics declared Sisti dead on scene but transported S.J. to the hospital.

Lieutenant Steve Lutz was the officer in charge on the scene. Several witnesses told him Jones-Williams and the car smelled of “burnt marijuana.” Based on the witnesses’ statement, at about 6:00 p.m., Lutz instructed Sergeant Keith Farren to speak with Jones-Williams at the hospital and obtain a “legal blood draw,” i.e., obtaining consent or reading an implied consent form to a suspect prior to seizing their blood for testing. 

However, Jones-Williams was restrained in a hospital bed and unable to answer questions due to his injuries. But Farren discovered the hospital had drawn blood from Jones-Williams at approximately 5:56 p.m. before Farren arrived. The record didn’t indicate why the blood was drawn.

At 7:30 p.m., Farren completed the necessary paperwork instructing the hospital to transfer the blood sample to the National Medical Services (“NMS”) lab to test for alcohol and drugs. The hospital sent the blood sample to NMS three days later. NMS produced a toxicology report indicating that Jones-Williams’ blood contained Delta-9 THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. 

Jones-Williams was subsequently charged with nine felonies, including homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, aggravated assault by vehicle, and endangering the welfare of a child.

Prior to trial, Jones-Williams filed a motion to suppress the blood test results, arguing police lacked probable cause that he was driving under the influence at the time of the accident; that his blood was “seized without a warrant, and without satisfying the exigency exception;” and that 75 Pa.C.S. § 3755, which provides in relevant part if “probable cause exists” to believe a person was driving under the influence, the emergency room physician may take a blood draw, did not apply to Jones-Williams.

During the suppression hearing, Lutz acknowledged that he could have obtained a warrant for the blood sample but failed to seek one because he believed that a warrantless “legal blood draw” could be obtained under § 3755. However, Farren had a different understanding of “legal blood draw.” At the hearing, he testified that he sought to obtain the blood sample by reading the implied consent form to Jones-Williams, and Farren’s paperwork instructing the hospital to transfer the blood sample to NMS made no mention of § 3755 but rather cited the implied consent statute as authority. Farren also acknowledged that he could have obtained a warrant but failed to do so.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, reasoning “that the blood test results were admissible under the exigent circumstances exception based on the totality of the circumstances, regardless of Section 3755 or implied consent.”

After a jury trial, Jones-Williams was convicted on all counts and sentenced to four to eight years in prison and one year of probation. He appealed to the Superior Court, arguing again that the seizure of his blood sample was illegal and even if the State did comply with § 3755 statutory compliance alone is insufficient to overcome the requirement to obtain a warrant.

A panel of the Superior Court unanimously ruled that there were no exigent circumstances “because the blood evidence was preserved and no longer dissipating at the time it was seized.” Importantly, the court explained that Farren’s “request to test [Jones-Williams’] blood sample constitutes the relevant search for purposes of our constitutional analysis,” not when hospital staff performed the blood draw. The court determined that Jones-Williams’ suppression motion should have been granted and remanded for a new trial.

The Commonwealth appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal to review whether exigent circumstances or implied consent justified the warrantless seizure of Jones-Williams’ blood sample.

The Court noted that it’s well settled that the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures. Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 373 (2014) (“the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness”); Int. of T.W., 261 A.3d 409 (Pa. 2021). A warrantless search or seizure “is presumptively unreasonable … subject to a few specifically established, well-delineated exceptions.” Commonwealth v. Chase, 960 A.2d 108 (Pa. 2008).

“As a preliminary matter,” the Court wrote, “the Superior Court correctly recognized that ‘[t]he blood draw by hospital personnel did not trigger protections under either [the U.S. or Pennsylvania Constitutions] because there is no evidence that hospital personnel acted at the direction of the police or as an agent of the police.’” See generally Commonwealth v. Shaw, 770 A.2d 295 (Pa. 2001).

The Court then turned to the exigent circumstances exception analysis. It observed that the exception applies “when the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that a warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013). A wide array of situations can give rise to exigent circumstances, but the one that’s relevant for this analysis is exigent circumstances based upon “a likelihood that evidence will be destroyed if police take the time to obtain a warrant,” according to the Court. Commonwealth v. Wright, 961 A.2d 119 (Pa. 2008).

The Wright Court ruled that exigent circumstances existed to justify the police’s warrantless seizure of the defendant’s bloody clothes and swabs of blood on his hands as he was being admitted to the hospital while in police custody. That court reasoned that it “is hard to imagine evidence more readily destroyed than blood on a person’s hands” and that the “one to two hours” it would have taken to obtain a warrant “would have risked” the evidence being destroyed.

Applying the foregoing principles to this case, the Court concluded that “it is clear exigent circumstances did not exist to justify the warrantless seizure” of Jones-Williams’ blood sample. The Court stated that exigent circumstances with respect to blood draws is a recurring issue in the courts because of the body’s metabolic processes in destroying evidence within a suspect’s blood, and thus, a robust body of case law has been developed, beginning with Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966) (warrantless blood draw was constitutional because police “might reasonably have believed that [they were] confronted with an emergency, in which the delay necessary to obtain a warrant, under the circumstances, threatened the destruction of evidence”). The Court discussed the U.S. Supreme Court’s Schmerber line of cases, which generally authorize the warrantless seizure of an incapacitated suspect’s blood sample because of the body’s ability to metabolize drug and alcohol evidence in the blood stream. See, e.g., Birchfield v. North Dakota, 579 U.S. 438 (2016).

However, the facts of this case do not “present the same inherent exigency concerns as other blood draw cases because the evidence … was no longer being actively metabolized, explained to the Court. Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 139 S. Ct. 2525 (2019) (“exigency exists when (1) BAC evidence is dissipating and (2) some other factor creates a pressing health, safety, or law enforcement needs that would take priority over a warrant application”). The Court stated that the seizure occurred when Farren filled out the necessary paperwork directing that the blood sample be sent for testing at NMS, but by that time, “the blood was already drawn, preserved, and the evidence therein no longer dissipating.” Thus, there were no exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless seizure of Jones-Williams’s blood sample.

Next, the Court turned to the issue of implied consent under § 3755. After reviewing the statute and the record, the Court determined that the Commonwealth is unable to prove adherence with the requirements of the implied consent statute because there’s no indication in the record why the hospital took a blood sample from Jones-Williams. Additionally, Ferren’s paperwork directing the hospital to submit the blood sample for testing at NMS makes no mention of § 3755; instead, he cites 75 Pa.S.C.A. 1547 as authority for testing. Thus, the Court concluded that implied consent does not justify the warrantless seizure of the blood sample.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Superior Court’s reversal of the trial court’s order denying suppression, vacated the judgment of sentence, and remanded for a new trial. See: Commonwealth v. Jones-Williams, 279 A.3d 508 (Pa. 2022).

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