Week 5 (2020)

Week of February 3, 2020, through February 7, 2020
Highlight Case

U.S. v. Stephonze Blakeney,

Decided: February 6, 2020

The Fourth Circuit held that two search warrants dispensed in connection with a fatal car crash—one for a toxicology analysis of blood drawn from the defendant and one for a review of his car’s event data recorder (“EDR”)—were properly issued and executed. The Court reasoned that the warrant applications included sufficient information to establish probable cause and that the warrants were sufficiently particularized. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction, concluding that the district court properly denied the defendant’s suppression motions.

Seeking to suppress the toxicology results and information obtained through his car’s EDR, the defendant argued that the warrants for those items lacked probable cause and particularity. The defendant maintained that the toxicology analysis warrant lacked probable cause primarily because the police officer “misled” the magistrate judge in representing that the defendant was removed from his car with a heavy odor of alcohol and possibly PCP. The defendant argued that the warrant application for review of the car’s EDR lacked probable cause because it failed to establish that the EDR contained evidence of a crime. The defendant also asserted that both warrants lacked particularity because they failed to refer to the specific criminal offense as to which the evidence was sought. 

The Court concluded that, although the magistrate judge issued the toxicology warrant following only a six-minute phone conversation with the police officer, that warrant was based on probable cause. The Court found there was fair probability that the toxicology analysis would reveal evidence of the defendant’s impaired state because of the gross driver error the defendant exhibited, the odor of alcohol coming from the defendant’s car, and the defendant’s combativeness with first responders on the scene. The Court also concluded that review of the information stored in the car’s EDR five seconds before the accident was likely to uncover evidence of impaired driving and not merely a “garden variety” car accident. 

Turning to the defendant’s assertion that both warrants lacked particularity, the Court noted that warrants need not describe the exact sort of criminal activity a defendant is suspected of engaging in. Instead, the Fourth Amendment requires only that the warrant describe with specificity the goods to be seized. Accordingly, the Court found that the particularity requirement was met where the warrant clearly communicated that the relevant offense was a vehicular homicide or vehicular-related fatality. 

Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the defendant’s conviction for homicide by motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol. 

Full opinion

Fred Hanna