Some Limited Searches Aimed at Identification Do Not Violate Fourth Amendment Rights

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

Vehicle Search After Accident to Identify Unconscious Driver

State v. Sidorek decided October 7, 2014 is an appeal by the State of a motion to suppress that was granted in a vehicular homicide case. The relevant facts of the case are that an officer arrived at the scene of an accident where one driver was dead and the other driver (defendant) was unconscious. The defendant was evacuated via helicopter to a hospital before she could be identified. The officer proceeded to search the defendant’s vehicle and retrieve her purse which he opened allegedly to find out her identity. The defense contend that this was not a reasonable action because prior to her airlift the defendant had awoken from her unconsciousness and her permission to search the vehicle and purse could have been granted. During appellate review factual deference is granted to the trial court, but no deference is granted to their interpretation of the law. However in this particular case the Appellate Division found no evidence to suggest that the defendant had become conscious before being airlifted and did not grant deference to that factual finding. After searching through the purse the officer found oxycodone pills and then ordered blood tests to be conducted. The prosecution contended that even if the order to draw blood was unwarranted it would have been conducted anyway and thus was inevitable discovery.

Limited Searches Permissible Only in Certain Situations

Searches are conducted in order to identify someone who has no identification and has subsequently lied about it during a traffic stop, or has a license that doesn’t match the system, or is unconscious as in the case at hand, may be permissible if the search is confined to the glove compartment or other areas where a registration may normally be kept. The facts of this case reveal such a situation. In Missouri v. McNeely, a U.S. Supreme Court decision decided a year after the search in the case at hand the issue of per se exigency of drawing blood in DWI cases was examined. The Court held that there was no per se rule and that each case must be examined on an individual basis. However, at the time the officer ordered the blood drawn from the defendant in this case he thought he was acting in good faith and according to the existing law. Additionally given that a witness said that they had observed the defendant’s vehicle swerving prior to the crash, and after finding the pills there was probable cause to treat the crash as a possible vehicular homicide. For these reasons the case was remanded.

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