A Kansas Court of Appeals ruled that a trial court incorrectly suppressed evidence because, although it was illegal for the officer to obtain it without a warrant, the officer acted in good faith in obtaining it.
In 2008 Kansas enacted a law which allowed law enforcement to conduct a warrantless search in drawing blood from someone who was involved in an accident that resulted in serious injury or death. In other words, according to the law, the mere involvement in a traffic violation which led to injury or death constituted the probable cause to allow officers to obtain blood without a warrant to determine if the person was driving drunk.
A traffic violation resulting in injury or death does not, by itself, constitute probable cause that a person is driving drunk.
In State vs. Declerck, a 2014 case, the Kansas Supreme Court held the law to be “unconstitutional to the extent it requires a search and seizure absent probable cause the person was operating or attempting to operate a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“We are acutely aware the statute in question attempts to address the terrible toll impaired drivers inflict on our state’s highways, but we are reminded of the ‘truism that constitutional protections have costs,’” said the Declerck court citing the United State Supreme Court ‘s decision in Coy v. Iowa.
In February of 2012, Troy Meitler was involved in an accident in Reno County, Kansas where a person was killed. A Kansas Highway Patrol trooper obtained blood from Meitler while he was unconscious and receiving emergency medical treatment. Meitler was charged with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated battery and driving under the influence of drugs.
The trial court judge, however, suppressed the blood evidence because the trooper did not have probable cause to believe Meitler. In suppressing the evidence, the trial court cited the Declerek decision.
Prosecutors appealed the trial court’s decision to suppress the blood evidence.
The Kansas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision. Two of three appellate judges held, “we are unable to conclude that on February 10, 2012 (the day of the accident), a reasonable law enforcement officer should have known that (the 2008 Kansas statute) was unconstitutional. The district court’s contrary legal conclusion finding that the good-faith exception did not apply in this case was error.”
The dissenting judge acknowledged that evidence generally could be admitted when police officers acted under an existing law that eventually is found to be unconstitutional. However, Judge Gordon Atcheson, cited the Supreme Court, in pointing out that an officer’s good faith reliance does not apply “if, in passing the statute, the legislature wholly abandoned its responsibility to enact constitutional laws.”
“State legislatures may not override decisions of the United States Supreme Court construing federal constitutional rights by passing statutes designed to thwart those decisions and dilute those rights,” Atcheson wrote. “That is a fundamental precept of our system of governance integrating the dual sovereignty of state and federal authorities.”
Atcheson is exactly right. This, unfortunately, was lost on the majority of the court.
There is no question that the law was unconstitutional. And there’s no question that the officer was relying on it.
However, as I read about Meitler’s appeal, I wondered how we even got to this point. Shouldn’t those entrusted with creating laws that affect citizens so significantly have at least a fundamental understanding of the Constitution? One would think.
At the time the officer drew the blood, the law had not yet been officially deemed unconstitutional. So only slightly less culpable than the legislature is the trooper. As the authority who enforces the laws that the legislature enacts, I would like to think that the trooper questioned whether he actually had probable cause to believe that Meitler was under the influence. Although I doubt it.