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Commonwealth v. Trahey

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

March 26, 2018


          Appeal from the Order Entered February 8, 2017 In the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-51-CR-0000422-2016.

          BEFORE: BENDER, P.J.E., PANELLA, J., and STEVENS, P.J.E. [*]


          STEVENS, P.J.E.

         The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appeals from the order entered by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County granting the suppression motion filed by Appellee Timothy Trahey. The Commonwealth argues that the trial court erred in finding that the warrantless draw of Appellee's blood was not justified by the exigent circumstances doctrine. After careful review, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         On Friday, September 4, 2015, at approximately 9:15 p.m., at the start of Labor Day weekend, 911 dispatchers received a report that a car had struck a cyclist on the 4900 block of Wynnewood Avenue in Philadelphia. However, police were not dispatched to the accident scene until 10:01 p.m. due to the lower priority of auto accidents on the hierarchy of circumstances in which Philadelphia Police Officers are dispatched to emergency situations.

          At approximately 10:04 p.m., three minutes after their dispatch, Officers Christopher Marchesani and Derrick Lewis arrived at the accident scene and observed a smashed bicycle and a pickup truck that was partially on the sidewalk. The truck's hood and grill were damaged, its windshield was shattered, and the windshield had a hole on the passenger's side. The officers also noticed blood in the street. The officers approached a group of bystanders, who informed them that Appellee had been driving the truck and that the cyclist had already been transported to the hospital. The cyclist sustained fatal injuries from the crash and did not survive.

         Officer Marchesani approached Appellee, who admitted that he was driving the truck that struck the cyclist. As Officer Marchesani walked with Appellee to his vehicle to get his driver's license and registration, he noticed Appellee had a strong odor of alcohol, his speech was slow and slurred, his eyes were glassy, and his gait was unsteady. This was the first point at which the officers realized that this incident was likely a DUI-related crash as they had not been informed by the 911 dispatcher of the possibility that Appellee was intoxicated. Based on his observations, Officer Marchesani placed Appellee under arrest for DUI.

         After spending approximately thirty minutes at the accident scene, the officers left to transport Appellee to the police headquarters, but were called back to the accident scene by the Accident Investigation District (AID), a specialized unit that investigates accidents that involved critical injuries. Three AID officers, Officer Patrick Farrell, Officer Daniel Shead, and Officer Hughes, took responsibility for investigating the scene of the accident.[1] AID Officer Farrell observed signs of Appellee's intoxication and was informed that nearly ninety minutes had passed since the crash. Officer Farrell become concerned with the time constraints associated with DUI testing as Appellee's blood testing would have to be completed within two hours of the crash to accurately determine his blood chemistry at the time of the accident. Therefore, at 10:49 p.m., Officer Farrell sent Appellee directly for blood testing at the police headquarters.

         On that evening, AID Officer John Zirilli was assigned to administer the blood and breath tests at the Police Detention Unit. Officer Zirilli sought to obtain a blood test from Appellee as a blood test is routinely administered in relation to auto accidents where a driver, passenger, or pedestrian sustained serious or fatal injuries. Officer Zirilli knew it was important to administer a blood test to Appellee within two hours of the accident. Thereafter, Officer Zirilli gave Appellee warnings from Pennsylvania's implied consent statute that included advising him of criminal consequences a DUI suspect would face by refusing to submit to blood testing.

         Appellee acknowledged these warnings, gave verbal consent to the blood testing, and signed the applicable 75-439 form. However, Appellee failed to check a box to indicate that he had agreed to submit to the blood test. At approximately 11:20 p.m., about two hours and five minutes after the accident had occurred, Appellee's blood was drawn.

         Appellee was subsequently charged with homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence, homicide by vehicle, involuntary manslaughter, and DUI. Appellee filed a pretrial suppression motion, in which he claimed, inter alia, the police had subjected him to an unlawful search by seeking warrantless blood testing.

         On February 8, 2017, the lower court held a suppression hearing at which Officers Marchesani, Farrell, Zirilli, and Shead testified. Specifically, AID Officer Shead claimed that the officers would not have had sufficient time to seek a warrant for the chemical testing of Appellee's blood within two hours of the accident. Officer Shead emphasized the significant amount of time that had elapsed before the officers were able to respond to the accident scene and discover that Appellee was likely under the influence of a controlled substance when the accident occurred.

         In addition, Officer Shead described in detail the necessary efforts and time an AID officer would have to undertake in order to obtain a warrant for chemical testing. This procedure included driving from the accident scene to AID headquarters, typing an affidavit in support of the warrant request, communicating with the on-call prosecutor for approval of the affidavit, arranging to meet with an available commissioner to consider the warrant application, traveling to arraignment court, waiting for an available commissioner, allowing the commissioner to review the application, and returning to the police headquarters with the approved request. Officer Shead estimated that the entire process could take anywhere from seventy minutes to three hours.

         Moreover, Officer Shead also explained that obtaining a warrant in a timely manner in this case would have been extremely difficult as there was no available AID officers to seek a warrant that night. As the crash occurred at the beginning of Labor Day weekend on Friday, September 4, 2015, only five AID officers were working the evening shift. One officer was stationed at the AID headquarters to answer the phone and dispatch other AID officers to particular incidents, Officer Zirilli was stationed at the office to administer chemical testing to all DUI suspects arrested in Philadelphia, and the three remaining officers were assigned to process the incident scenes in a timely ...

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