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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Keith A. Miller

May 24, 2010


Appeal from the Order dated April 14, 2008 In the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County Criminal, No. CP-06-CR-0005112-2006

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gantman, J.



¶ 1 Appellant, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, asks us to determine whether the Berks County Court of Common Pleas erred when it suppressed the results of a blood alcohol test performed on Appellee, Keith A. Miller, at a hospital following a motor vehicle accident. We hold the court improperly suppressed the results of Appellee's blood alcohol test because the blood draw was conducted for independent medical purposes, there is nothing in the record to cast a shadow on this presumption, and the police properly obtained and executed a search warrant for the results. Accordingly, we reverse the suppression court's order and remand for further proceedings. ¶ 2 The suppression court opinion fully and correctly set forth the relevant facts of this appeal as follows:

J-E04002-09 On June 10, 2006, at 9:39 p.m., Officer Curt Unterkoefler of the Exeter Police Department arrived on the scene of a one-vehicle accident'. The Commonwealth offered no testimony as to the time of the accident. Upon arriving on scene[,] Officer Unterkoefler observed a black Ford Probe that had apparently struck a telephone pole head-on. A man later identified as [Appellee] was unconscious and situated in the driver's seat of the vehicle. A volunteer first responder was situated in the passenger side of the vehicle stabilizing [Appellee's] head and neck. Officer Unterkoefler, upon approaching the vehicle, observed a strong odor of alcohol emitting from [Appellee's] person, and also an open container of beer inside the vehicle. Additionally, once fire personnel extricated [Appellee] from the vehicle and placed him in an ambulance, Officer Unterkoefler observed a strong odor of alcohol coming from [Appellee's] breath and person, as well as a case of beer located within the vehicle.

[Appellee] was then transported by ambulance to the Reading Hospital. Officer Darren S. Gartner, also of the Exeter Police Department[,] arrived on scene some time after [Appellee] had been transported away. As a result of the observations he made, consistent with those detailed above, Officer Gartner requested a search warrant for all the medical records, relevant to [Appellee], arising out of his medical treatment on the above noted date, specifically a blood alcohol content ("BAC") reading. Officer Gartner subsequently received a blood serum BAC reading and a toxicology report with respect to blood and urine samples obtained by the [h]ospital from [Appellee] on the date in question.

(Suppression Court Opinion, dated June 5, 2008, at 2-3). The tests revealed Appellee's BAC was 0.22%, and also indicated the presence of cocaine in Appellee's bloodstream. ¶ 3 On November 29, 2006, the Commonwealth charged Appellee with four counts of driving under influence of alcohol or controlled substance

("DUI")1 and one count of careless driving.2 On December 11, 2006, Appellee filed a suppression motion. In his motion, Appellee claimed no one had asked him to consent to blood testing, and he did not provide consent. Appellee also argued Officer Gartner's search warrant was overbroad, and the Commonwealth lacked any probable cause to support its request for BAC test results. Appellee concluded "the results of the chemical analysis of [his] blood alcohol content and urine test conducted on or about June 10, 2006, should be suppressed inasmuch as the testing was illegal and violative of [Appellee's] Constitutional rights'." (Omnibus Pretrial Motion, filed 12/11/06, at 2). Appellee filed a supplemental suppression motion, raising substantially similar claims, on February 12, 2007. ¶ 4 On March 6, 2008, the court conducted a suppression hearing. The court issued its findings of fact and conclusions of law on April 15, 2008. The court determined the Commonwealth bore the burden to prove it had not obtained the blood test results in violation of Appellee's rights. Nevertheless, the court concluded "the record lacks any mention whatsoever as to any reason for [Appellee's] blood being drawn." (Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, filed 4/15/08, at 2). Therefore, the court entered an order granting Appellee's suppression motion with respect to the BAC results obtained pursuant to the search warrant. 1 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3802. 2 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3714.

¶ 5 The Commonwealth timely filed its notice of appeal on May 14, 2008. On April 29, 2009, a panel of this Court affirmed. On May 11, 2009, the Commonwealth requested en banc reargument, which this Court granted on July 7, 2009.

¶ 6 The Commonwealth now raises one issue for our review: DID THE TRIAL COURT ERR IN SUPPRESSING THE RESULTS OF THE TESTING OF BLOOD, WHICH WAS DRAWN FOR INDEPENDENT MEDICAL PURPOSES, WHICH WERE OBTAINED BY POLICE THROUGH A SEARCH WARRANT? (Commonwealth's Brief at 4). ¶ 7 When the Commonwealth appeals from a suppression order, the relevant scope and standard of review are: [We] consider only the evidence from the defendant's witnesses together with the evidence of the prosecution that, when read in the context of the entire record, remains uncontradicted. As long as there is some evidence to support them, we are bound by the suppression court's findings of fact. Most importantly, we are not at liberty to reject a finding of fact which is based on credibility.

Commonwealth v. Lehman, 857 A.2d 686, 687 (Pa.Super. 2004), appeal dismissed as improvidently granted, 584 Pa. 605, 886 A.2d 1137 (2005) (internal citations omitted). "The suppression court's conclusions of law, however, are not binding on an appellate court, whose duty is to determine if the suppression court properly applied the law to the facts." Commonwealth v. Keller, 823 A.2d 1004, 1008 (Pa.Super. 2003), appeal denied, 574 Pa. 765, 832 A.2d 435 (2003) (quoting Commonwealth v. Nester, 551 Pa. 157, 160, 709 A.2d 879, 881 (1998)).

¶ 8 The Commonwealth contends a specific framework has developed to determine whether police have properly obtained BAC test results in cases where hospitals draw blood from a DUI suspect. The Commonwealth relies on Commonwealth v. Shaw, 564 Pa. 617, 770 A.2d 295 (2001), for the proposition that it must obtain a warrant for the release of BAC test results in cases where blood is not drawn pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3755(a) (governing blood draws conducted by emergency room personnel), or if the officer did not request a blood draw based upon probable cause of DUI. The Commonwealth asserts the instant case fits within the Shaw framework, because the officers did not ask medical personnel to draw Appellee's blood for testing, and the record does not indicate medical personnel drew the blood pursuant to Section 3755.

¶ 9 Although the suppression court emphasized the lack of testimony from medical personnel regarding the purpose of the blood draw, the Commonwealth submits such testimony is irrelevant. The Commonwealth argues medical personnel undisputedly drew Appellee's blood for an independent medical purpose, and Officer Gartner "took the conservative route in obtaining the results with a warrant."

(Commonwealth's Brief at 10). The Commonwealth also relies on Commonwealth v. West, 834 A.2d 625 (Pa.Super. 2003), appeal denied, 586 Pa. 712, 889 A.2d 1216 (2005), for the proposition that testimony from medical personnel is not required where there is no controversy regarding the purpose of the blood draw. The Commonwealth concludes this Court must reverse the order suppressing the results of Appellee's BAC test and remand the case for trial.

¶ 10 Appellee maintains the Commonwealth failed to offer any evidence from medical personnel regarding why they conducted the blood draw. Citing West, Appellee claims the Commonwealth should have produced evidence "showing what the independent medical purpose was, or evidence to prove that the blood was drawn pursuant to a perceived duty by hospital personnel arising out of Section 3755." (Appellee's Brief at 8). Absent more, Appellee insists the Commonwealth failed to meet its burden to demonstrate the testing was for independent medical purposes or pursuant to Section 3755. Appellee concludes the court properly suppressed the BAC test results. We disagree.

¶ 11 Courts of this Commonwealth have consistently recognized that an individual has a substantial privacy interest in his medical records. Commonwealth v. Riedel, 539 Pa. 172, 651 A.2d 135 (1994). We note, however, that although [an individual] has an expectation of privacy in [his] medical records, this privacy interest does not preclude all searches and seizures of medical records. The proper function of'Art. I, ยง 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, is to constrain, not against all intrusions as such, but against intrusions which are not justified in the circumstances, or which ...

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