State v. Fletcher and Warrantless Blood Draws

I’ve blogged before about G.S. 20-139.1(d1). When a DWI arrestee refuses to submit to a test for alcohol, that section allows “any law enforcement officer with probable cause” to “compel the [arrestee, without a search warrant] to provide blood or urine samples for analysis if the officer reasonably believes that the delay necessary to obtain a court order . . . would result in the dissipation” of alcohol in the arrestee’s system.”

I argued in my prior post that in a routine refusal case, an officer should get a search warrant rather than rely on G.S. 20-139.1(d1), which should be used only when circumstances suggest that obtaining a warrant would be unusually time-consuming. Yesterday, the court of appeals decided State v. Fletcher, which confirms my basic point, but also suggests that the courts are willing to allow warrantless blood draws under circumstances that really aren’t that unusual.

The defendant in Fletcher stopped at a checkpoint and exhibited several signs of impairment. He was arrested and taken to an Intoximeter. Compressing the facts a bit, he refused to provide a sample, and the arresting officer took him to the emergency room for a warrantless blood draw, the results of which confirmed his impairment. He moved to suppress the results, arguing that there was nothing unusual about the case that justified a warrantless blood draw, but the trial court denied his motion and the court of appeals affirmed.

The appellate court noted that G.S. 20-139.1(b1) is essentially a statutory codification of the exigent circumstances exception to the search warrant requirement, as applied in the context of blood draws. And it found sufficient exigency in the following facts: (1) the magistrate’s office was 12 miles away; (2) it was often very busy on weekend evenings, meaning that a search warrant application might not be considered immediately; (3) and the emergency room was likewise often very busy on weekend evenings. The officer estimated the total delay associated with going to the magistrate’s office, procuring a warrant, and executing it to be two to three hours. It looks like the trial prosecutor did an excellent job of presenting evidence supporting each aspect of the delay.

Two things stand out about Fletcher. First, the facts here are not extremely unusual. At least for officers who regularly use Intoximeters that aren’t adjacent to a magistrate’s office, all three of the factors present in Fletcher will often be present. So although obtaining a warrant when possible remains advisable, it appears that the court has adopted an expansive view of exigent circumstances in this context. Second, the court specifically rejected the idea that the admissibility of retrograde extrapolation testimony undercuts the exigency, an argument I considered in my earlier post. All in all, it’s an important case, and one that most officers will like.