A trial court improperly held that a driver’s consent to a blood draw was involuntary and, as a result, wrongly suppressed the blood-draw evidence at his drunk-driving hearing, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.
The defendant in People v Stricklin (Docket No. 340614), who drove for a living, was pulled over by police on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. During the stop, the officer informed the defendant that, under the state’s implied consent law, if he did not consent to a blood draw, he would temporarily lose his license and be subject to six points against his driving record. Michigan’s implied consent statute, MCL 257.625a, says that drivers are considered to have given their consent to a chemical test to determine blood-alcohol content when they are pulled over by law enforcement.
“Having to make a choice between two undesirable options does not render defendant’s express consent to the blood draw coercive and involuntary,” the Court of Appeals wrote in a published opinion. “We conclude that defendant’s consent to the warrantless search was not coercive or involuntary under applicable precedent solely as a result of defendant’s stated fear of economic consequences stemming from the suspension of his license under the implied consent law.”
The Court of Appeals decision has been appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.
The defendant was charged with operating while intoxicated (OWI), in violation of MCL 257.625. The defendant filed a motion in 8th District Court (Kalamazoo County) to suppress the blood-draw evidence that was obtained. He argued the blood draw was an illegal warrantless search under the Fourth Amendment because he was threatened with losing his driving privileges if he refused consent.
After an evidentiary hearing, the 8th District Court suppressed the blood-draw evidence, finding that law enforcement had obtained it during an illegal warrantless search. The prosecution appealed.
The Kalamazoo County Circuit Court affirmed, finding the defendant’s alleged consent to the blood draw was involuntary and coercive because he drove for a living and feared the impact that losing his license would have on his economic livelihood.
The prosecution argued to the Court of Appeals that the trial court misapplied Fourth Amendment precedent and, as a result, incorrectly found the defendant’s express consent was involuntary.
“We agree and reverse,” the Court of Appeals said, concluding the trial court misconstrued the exclusionary rule under the Fourth Amendment when it affirmed the suppression of the blood-draw evidence.
The Court of Appeals relied primarily on Birchfield v North Dakota, __ US __ (2016) to reach its conclusion. The Birchfield Court held that the taking of a blood sample constituted a search and that, consistent with the Fourth Amendment, in order to obtain a blood sample, law enforcement must either obtain a warrant or satisfy an exception to the warrant requirement. The Birchfield Court explained that because a blood test is highly intrusive, law enforcement may not conduct a blood test pursuant to the search incident to a lawful arrest exception.
Meanwhile, the Court of Appeals noted there were two other exceptions to the warrant requirement that were possibly relevant to the present appeal: (1) exigent circumstances constituting an emergency justifying the warrantless taking of a blood sample and (2) valid consent. “Both the district court and the circuit court held that the exigent circumstances exception does not apply,” the Court of Appeals observed. “The prosecution does not argue this was error.” Rather, the parties in this case disagreed “over whether defendant validly consented to the warrantless blood draw.”
Further, the defendant did not challenge the validity of Michigan’s implied consent law, the Court of Appeals said, noting the U.S. Supreme Court in Birchfield expressly recognized that it has repeatedly approved the “general concept” of implied consent laws. “In Michigan, our Supreme Court has recognized that ‘there is a strong public interest reflected’ in the implied consent law and that ‘society is aware of the need for effective laws to curtail drunken driving,’” the Court of Appeals stated.
The Court of Appeals also looked to Schneckloth v Bustamonte, 412 US 218 (1973), for guidance in making its decision. In Schneckloth, the U.S. Supreme Court held the Fourth Amendment requires “that a consent not be coerced, by explicit or implicit means, by implied threat or covert force.” Relying on Schneckloth, the Court of Appeals said the essential question is whether the defendant’s free will was “overborne” and his “capacity for self-determination critically impaired” by official coercion.
Lesser Of Two Evils
The Court of Appeals then applied the law and case precedent to the facts of the case.
According to the Court of Appeals, the trial court’s evidentiary hearing record was “sparse on details” concerning the financial or psychological impact of the defendant’s consent decision and how it could have affected his ability to exercise free will.
“There can be little doubt that, by choosing first to drive drunk, defendant left himself in a Catch-22 of choosing, at least from his point of view, the lesser of two evils,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “If defendant consented to the blood draw, it could prove he was driving drunk, which would likely result in a drunk driving conviction with attendant loss of driving privileges, fine, and possible jail time. If defendant refused the blood draw, that choice would necessarily result in a license suspension and points.”
During the trial court’s evidentiary hearing, the defendant “essentially conceded” that he understood his rights and the choice that was presented to him, the Court of Appeals said. “While testifying that he felt as if he had no choice, he acknowledged that he understood that [the officer] could obtain a warrant if he refused. He also testified that he understood the consequences of a drunk driving conviction.”
Therefore, “[w]e conclude that this is the testimony of someone who clearly understood and appreciated the relevant stakes when faced with two unfavorable choices, not no choice at all,” the Court of Appeals said. “Accordingly, defendant’s express consent to the blood draw was a valid exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.”