Appeals court overturns vehicular homicide conviction
Published 7:58 am Friday, October 2, 2015
A state appellate court has overturned a conviction on a Carter County vehicular homicide case and ruled the court erred when it allowed the results of alcohol testing on a blood sample taken without a search warrant to be entered as evidence.
In March 2014, Micah Cates, of Carter County, was convicted of vehicular homicide in connection with an 2012 crash that left his best friend, Tanner Perkins, dead. Cates was later sentenced to serve eight years in prison as a result of the conviction.
Cates appealed the conviction based on an argument that blood sample was collected from Cates without his consent and without police obtaining a search warrant.
In an opinion handed down by the Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee at Knoxville on Monday, the appellate court over turned the conviction but ruled the court did not err in denying alternative sentencing.
The fatal accident happened shortly before 2 a.m. on August 14, 2012, in front of a convenience store on Milligan Highway. Police testified at trial that alcohol use and speed were contributing factors to the crash. An accident reconstruction specialist estimated Cates’ speed to be more than 90 miles per hour when he began breaking before impact.
When police arrived on the scene, officers found Cates, who was 20 years old at the time, lying on the ground next to the driver’s side door and Tanner still inside the car.
Elizabethton Police Department Chief Greg Workman, who was a patrol captain at the time, testified Cates had an open fracture to his leg as well as other external wounds and emergency responders suspected he may have internal injuries as well.
Cates was transported by ambulance to the Johnson City Medical Center. Workman testified he feared Cates might require immediate surgery and that would mean he would be administer medications that could taint a blood sample collected later. Because obtaining a search warrant could take some time, Workman said he instructed an officer to go to the hospital and collect the sample without a warrant, believing extenuating circumstances would preclude the need for a warrant.
Prior to Cates’ trial, his attorney Steven Finney filed a motion seeking to suppress the evidence collected from the blood sample, which showed Cates’ blood alcohol concentration to be 0.14, nearly twice the legal limit. Finney contended police violated Cates’ Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures by taking a blood sample without either consent or a search warrant. Judge Kerry Blackwood, who presided over the trial, denied the motion to suppress and allowed the blood test to be admitted as evidence at trial.
The appellate court, in their opinion, said Blackwood erred in allowing the blood test to be admitted.
“The drawing of the defendant’s blood unquestionably constituted a search implicating Fourth Amendment protections. Such an invasion of bodily integrity implicates an individual’s most personal and deep-rooted expectations of privacy,” the opinion drafted by Justice Camille R. McMullen said. “Thus, the importance of requiring authorization by a neutral and detached magistrate before allowing a law enforcement officer to ‘invade another’s body in search of evidence of guilt is indisputable and great.”
In the hearing to suppress the evidence, the State argued the accident happened during the middle of the night and securing a search warrant would have taken an undue amount of time, thus creating the exigent circumstances required by law to collect a blood sample without a warrant. In its opinion, the appellate court refuted that argument.
“In our view, however, these circumstances are not unique nor do they, without more, create exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless blood draw. There was no evidence in the record about the length of time it actually would have taken to obtain a warrant, and there was nothing to suggest that obtaining a warrant on this particular night would have taken longer than in other cases,” the court said. “Further, while Capt. Workman testified that it was necessary for all of the responding officers to remain on the scene to investigate and clear it before the morning commute, the record confirms that at least two officers were directed to leave the scene to obtain blood samples from the defendant and the victim. The State fails to explain why one of these officers could not have returned tot he police department to start the warrant process while the defendant was being transported to the hospital.”
The appellate court then vacated Cates’ conviction and remanded the case for a new trial where the blood test results will be inadmissible as evidence.