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State v. Sanders

Court of Appeals of Texas, Second District, Fort Worth

December 14, 2017



          PANEL: WALKER and MEIER, JJ., and KERRY FITZGERALD (Senior Justice, Retired, Sitting by Assignment).



         I. Introduction

         The State appeals from the trial court's order granting appellee Terri Sanders's motion to suppress. The State contends that the trial court erred by concluding that exigent circumstances did not exist at the time the arresting officer in this case ordered a warrantless blood draw of Sanders's blood and that thus the trial court erred by granting the suppression motion. Because we conclude that under the totality of the circumstances the State failed to carry its burden that exigent circumstances existed at the time the arresting officer ordered Sanders's blood be drawn, we will affirm.

         II. Background

         Sanders was travelling on the wrong side of the road on the night of October 23, 2015, when she struck another vehicle head-on. The collision resulted in the deaths of two individuals and serious injury to another. The State charged Sanders with two counts of intoxication manslaughter and one count of intoxication assault. Later, Sanders filed a motion to suppress the results of a warrantless and involuntary blood draw that occurred after she was transported to the hospital from the accident scene.

         State Trooper Rachel Russell testified at the suppression hearing. According to Russell, around 11:45 p.m. on October 23, 2015, she received a dispatch regarding a two-vehicle, head-on collision. Russell said that as she was en route, she learned that the accident involved fatalities. By Russell's account, it took her approximately twenty minutes to arrive at the scene of the accident- specifically, she averred that she arrived at 12:07 a.m. on October 24, 2015.

         Russell recalled that when she arrived, a great number of emergency responders were already at the scene of the accident. She said that she thought "everybody else in the county was there before [she] was." Russell detailed that "[t]he fire departments, the first responders, two deputies, the game warden, [and] multiple emergency vehicles [were] parked everywhere" when she arrived. In the video from her dashcam, which was admitted at the suppression hearing, Russell can be heard stating, "Of course, every Tom, Dick, and Harry [inaudible] got to be here" as her patrol vehicle approached the accident scene. By Russell's recollection, the accident scene was under control when she arrived and some of the officers and emergency personnel on scene were not doing "a whole lot at that time."

         Russell said that her responsibility was to investigate the accident. Russell averred that shortly after her arrival, she made contact with Sanders. Russell said that Sanders had "a little bit of blood on her face" but that Sanders reported that "she felt okay." Russell averred that she later learned that Sanders had suffered broken bones in the accident. Russell said that upon contacting Sanders, she detected an odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from Sanders and that she had slurred speech and red, bloodshot eyes.

         According to Russell, State Trooper Brandon Neff also arrived on scene shortly after she did. Russell said that she instructed Neff to perform field sobriety tests on Sanders and "if need be, to get a specimen from her." Russell said that after assigning Neff to determine Sanders's level of intoxication, she turned her focus to gathering more information about the accident and the fatalities involved. By Russell's account, Sanders was transported from the scene in an ambulance around 12:30 a.m., and Russell said Neff followed the ambulance to the hospital. Russell averred that it would have taken the ambulance "[f]ive minutes" to reach the hospital from the accident scene, but she also said that her notes showed that Sanders arrived at the hospital at 1:00 a.m.

         Russell averred that while she was investigating, a justice of the peace arrived on the scene. By Russell's account, this happened after Sanders had been taken away. Russell said that she did not discuss drawing Sanders's blood with the judge and that the judge was there to pronounce the death of the two decedents. She said that the judge pronounced the two deceased at 12:40 a.m. Regarding why she did not seek a warrant for Sanders's blood, Russell averred that she did not have the time nor the opportunity to seek obtaining a search warrant because she was investigating the scene. Furthermore, Russell averred that the decision to seek a warrant would have been "Trooper Neff's decision."

         Russell said that Deputy Lee Phariss and the game warden, who were on the scene, were assisting her in "painting the scene" and filling out "a major crash packet." But in all, Russell averred that seven peace officers, including herself, were at the scene of the accident-one of them was Phariss. And even though Russell averred that no one accompanied Neff to the hospital, Russell can be heard on the video from Neff's dashcam stating that she was "sending Lee up there" to the hospital with Neff in case Sanders's boyfriend "g[a]ve [Neff] any problems." Russell also said that there were fourteen firefighters at the accident scene. Video from Russell's dashcam shows that the entire scene had been cleared and that most of the emergency personnel who had responded, as well as their emergency vehicles, had left the scene within two hours of Russell's arrival.

         Trooper Neff testified at the hearing as well. Neff averred that because Russell was the lead investigating officer at the time he arrived on the scene, he was there to assist Russell. Neff said that his assistance revolved around speaking with Sanders and that he did not have any accident scene duties. By Neff's account, Sanders appeared confused and did not "have much recollection of the crash." Neff said that even though he had already been advised by Russell to perform field sobriety tests on Sanders, he too suspected she was intoxicated through his own observations because he could smell an odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from Sanders. He also averred that Sanders had "glassy, blood-shot eyes" and slurred speech. Sanders also told Neff that she had consumed alcoholic beverages earlier in the day.

         Neff said that he asked Sanders whether she was injured, that Sanders replied she was not, and that Sanders had refused medical attention. Neff also said that he did not detect any injuries to Sanders and that he did not know until later that she had suffered a broken ankle.

         According to Neff, Sanders was not steady on her feet and leaned on multiple vehicles as he asked her to walk over to a patrol vehicle, where he intended to initiate field sobriety tests. Neff said that Sanders was "very compliant" and that after he explained to her the tests and then began to conduct the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, Sanders's boyfriend "stopped [Neff] and told [him] that he wanted her to be reevaluated again by the medics." Neff said that he believed that Sanders's boyfriend stopped the tests to prevent them from being conducted and not out of a concern for Sanders's well-being.

         Video submitted from Neff's dashcam shows that medical personnel took several minutes from that time to strap Sanders to a stretcher and then lift her onto a gurney and into an ambulance. Also from the video, while medical personnel attended to Sanders, a conversation can be seen and heard between Neff and Russell. In that conversation, Russell can be heard telling Neff that she would be sending "Lee" with him to the hospital in case Sanders's boyfriend gave Neff any "problems." And Neff can be heard stating, "But we're going to take her blood anyway, so it doesn't matter."

         Neff said that it only took five minutes for the ambulance to transport Sanders to the nearby hospital and that he followed the ambulance in his patrol vehicle. Neff said that upon arriving, because he believed that the boyfriend was attempting to interfere with his investigation, he spoke with Sanders's boyfriend outside the hospital. Neff said that the boyfriend became "very compliant at that time and said that he would let ...

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