Latest New Jersey ruling on US Supreme Court’s McNeeley Ruling: STATE VS. JONES

Submitted by New Jersey DWI Attorney, Jeffrey Hark

A New Jersey appeals court has upended a trial judge’s suppression of blood evidence taken from a woman who caused an accident after getting behind the wheel with a blood-alcohol level of more than four times the legal limit.

The Appellate Division thwarted the defendant’s efforts to invoke the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Missouri v. McNeely, which held that dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream by itself isn’t enough to establish exigency in order to bypass the warrant requirement.

“The fact that the Supreme Court rejected a per se exigency rule in McNeely should not be misinterpreted as a retreat from its recognition that the dissipation of alcohol in the blood merits considerable weight in a totality-of-the-circumstances analysis,” Appellate Division Judge Marianne Espinosa wrote in the published case, State v. Jones.  According to the July 29 decision, Donna Jones caused a multivehicle accident in December 2011 at the intersection of Kings Highway and Church Road in Cherry Hill, N.J., when she struck a car waiting at a red light.  The 11 officers who responded, along with four emergency medical workers, had to direct traffic and extricate Jones, who was unconscious and bleeding. They detected the odor of alcohol on Jones, who was brought to the hospital and, when she regained consciousness, admitted to having at least one drink and was found to be showing signs of intoxication, according to the opinion.

An hour and 15 minutes after the crash, a nurse, at the direction of police, took Jones’ blood sample without a warrant, revealing a blood-alcohol level of .345, according to the opinion—more than four times the legal limit of .08 for driving in New Jersey.

The officers testified that it wasn’t common practice to obtain a telephonic warrant, and New Jersey case law at the time allowed for a warrantless blood draw so long as there was probable cause to believe the driver was intoxicated, according to the opinion.  Jones moved to suppress the blood evidence, and the hearing was held four months after the high court issued McNeely.

Superior Court Judge Frederick Schuck granted Jones’ motion, finding that the state failed to establish that “it would have been impossible” for one of the 11 responding officers to find time to request a telephonic warrant.  In addition to McNeely, the panel relied on  Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966) where the court approved a warrantless blood draw because delays connected to investigation of an accident scene and hospital transportation jeopardized the evidence—the defendant’s dissipating blood-alcohol level.

The McNeely court, though it left Schmerber intact, said dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream by itself isn’t enough to create exigency.  But, Judge Espinosa rejecting this clear analysis, held the dissipation of alcohol “continues to be an ‘essential’ factor in analyzing the totality of the circumstances.”  “In short, the court did not require proof that evidence would be destroyed; it was sufficient to show that delays ‘threatened’ its destruction,” Espinosa said.  Schuck, therefore, in suppressing the evidence, “applied a more stringent test than that required by McNeely” and “interpreted McNeely to mean that an exigency is limited to circumstances where there is no time to obtain a warrant,” Espinosa said.

McNeely involved a routine drunken-driving arrest, while Schmerber, like Jones’ case, involved an accident, injuries, traffic jams and other circumstances, the Appellate Division noted. The “‘special facts’ that supported a warrantless blood sample in Schmerber and were absent in McNeely, were present in this case,” Espinosa wrote.  The court didn’t address the retroactivity of McNeely because the facts of Jones’ case, it found, didn’t require suppression of the evidence in the first place.

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Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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