SCOW docket: Police use hospital records to get around Fourth Amendment violation
Note: We are crunching Supreme Court of Wisconsin decisions down to size. The rule for this is that no justice gets more than 10 paragraphs as written in the actual decision. The "upshot" and "background" sections do not count as part of the 10 paragraphs because of their summary and very necessary nature. We've also removed citations from the opinion for ease of reading, but have linked to important cases cited or information about them. Italics indicate WJI insertions except for case names, which also are italicized.
The case: State of Wisconsin v. Daniel J. Van Linn
Majority opinion: Justice Rebecca F. Dallet (14 pages), joined by Chief Justice Annette K. Ziegler and Justices Patience Roggensack, Rebecca Grassl Bradley, Brian Hagedorn, and Jill J. Karofsky
Dissent: Justice Ann Walsh Bradley (11 pages)
After crashing his car, Daniel Van Linn was taken to the hospital, where two blood tests were performed: the first one by the hospital for diagnostic and treatment purposes; a later one at the direction of a sheriff's deputy for investigative purposes. Both blood tests revealed that Van Linn's blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) was over the legal limit. The circuit court suppressed the results of the deputy's blood test, concluding that the deputy's blood draw violated the Fourth Amendment because the deputy did not have a warrant. The State then subpoenaed the hospital for Van Linn's medical records, which included the hospital's diagnostic blood-test results. Van Linn argues that those results should be suppressed under the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary rule because the State subpoenaed the hospital only after it learned from the deputy's unlawful blood draw that Van Linn's BAC was over the legal limit. The issue is whether hospital's blood-test results are nevertheless admissible under the independent-source doctrine, an exception to the exclusionary rule. We hold that they are, and therefore affirm the court of appeals.
Around 2:00 a.m. one Sunday morning, the Oconto County Sheriff's Office responded to a call about a car accident on a rural road in the Town of Mountain. When a deputy arrived, he found Van Linn's car crashed into the back of a cabin. The subsequent investigation revealed that Van Linn was driving to his cabin when he thought he saw an oncoming car in his lane and swerved to avoid it. He veered off the road and into a ditch, where he hit a tree. He then drove back onto the road, crossing both lanes of traffic before continuing into a ditch on the other side of the road, over a hill, and through a field, eventually crashing into the back of someone's cabin.
Ambulance personnel found Van Linn lying on the ground across the street. He had a bump and some blood on his forehead and his hands were bleeding. Van Linn claimed to know nothing about the accident and denied that he was driving. The deputy noted a "moderate odor of alcohol" coming from Van Linn, and Van Linn told the deputy that he had drank "two beers" earlier that evening. The deputy learned that because Van Linn had four prior OWI (operating while intoxicated) convictions, he was subject to a BAC limit of 0.02 and his driving privileges were revoked.
Van Linn was taken to the hospital. At 3:55 a.m., hospital personnel performed a "diagnostic workup," which included drawing Van Linn's blood. The results of that blood test revealed that Van Linn's BAC was 0.226. Not long after, the deputy arrived at the hospital and, based on his investigation at the accident scene, arrested Van Linn for his fifth OWI. At the time of Van Linn's arrest, the deputy was unaware of the hospital's blood draw and its results.
Following his arrest, Van Linn admitted that he had in fact been driving and that he was the one who called the police to report the crash. The deputy asked Van Linn to consent to a blood draw, which Van Linn refused. Nevertheless, at his lieutenant's direction and without a warrant, the deputy had Van Linn's blood drawn at approximately 4:15 a.m., about twenty minutes after the hospital had taken Van Linn's blood. A test of this second sample showed that Van Linn's BAC was 0.205.
In the circuit court, Van Linn moved to suppress the results of the deputy's blood draw because the deputy did not have a warrant and no exceptions to the warrant requirement applied. The State argued that the deputy did not need a warrant because the natural dissipation of alcohol in Van Linn's bloodstream was an exigent circumstance. The circuit court granted Van Linn's motion, suppressing the results of the deputy's warrantless blood draw on the grounds that no exigent circumstances justified the deputy's failure to get a warrant.
Three months later, the State asked the circuit court to issue a subpoena to the hospital for Van Linn's medical records, which included the results of the hospital's diagnostic blood test. The State submitted an accompanying affidavit asserting there was probable cause for the subpoena because the deputy smelled alcohol on Van Linn at the scene, Van Linn had a reduced BAC restriction, and Van Linn admitted he had been drinking before the accident. The affidavit referenced the deputy's blood draw and noted that testing of the sample showed that Van Linn's BAC was over the legal limit.
The subpoena issued notwithstanding Van Linn’s objection, and the hospital produced its records from testing Van Linn's blood. Van Linn moved to suppress the hospital's blood-test results, but the circuit court denied the motion. Van Linn then appealed. The court of appeals affirmed, finding that the hospital's blood test was an independent source of evidence of Van Linn's BAC.
The Fourth Amendment protects against "unreasonable searches and seizures." When the State obtains evidence in violation of the Fourth Amendment, that evidence typically must be suppressed under the exclusionary rule. The exclusionary rule can apply to both evidence discovered during an unlawful search or seizure and evidence discovered only because of what the police learned from the unlawful activity, also referred to as "fruit of the poisonous tree." Not all Fourth Amendment violations, however, justify applying the exclusionary rule. Rather, the rule applies when excluding the unlawfully obtained evidence will "meaningfully deter" police misconduct such that interfering with the criminal justice system's truth-seeking objective is justified. Whenever the exclusionary rule applies, the scope of the remedy is limited to preventing the State from "profit[ing] from its illegal activity" without placing the State "in a worse position than it would otherwise have occupied" absent its illegal conduct. It follows that excluding illegally obtained evidence "does not mean that the facts thus obtained become sacred and inaccessible," provided the State's knowledge of them is gained from a source unrelated to the State's illegal conduct.
That idea is the foundation of the independent-source doctrine. The doctrine is an exception to the exclusionary rule in that it allows for the admissibility of evidence or information tainted by an illegal evidence-gathering activity when the State otherwise acquires the same information—or "rediscover[s]" it—by lawful means "in a fashion untainted" by that illegal activity. Subsequent lawful means, such as a subpoena, are "untainted" when the State can show that the illegal conduct neither "affected" the circuit court's decision to approve its subpoena request nor "prompted" the State's decision to seek a subpoena in the first place. The former question turns on "whether the [subpoena's supporting affidavit] contain[s] sufficient evidence of probable cause without the references to the tainted evidence." Van Linn concedes that although the supporting affidavit referenced his BAC as discovered by the deputy's unlawful blood draw, the affidavit establishes probable cause for the subpoena without that reference. Our analysis therefore focuses on the latter question of whether the State's decision to seek the subpoena was prompted by what it learned from the deputy's unlawful blood draw.
Van Linn argues that the State's decision to subpoena his medical records was "motivated specifically" by the knowledge it gained from the deputy's unlawful blood draw—that his BAC was over the legal limit. According to Van Linn, if the deputy had not unlawfully drawn Van Linn's blood, the State would not have known that the hospital's blood test would show he had a prohibited BAC and, therefore, "would have had no reason to seek a subpoena" for his medical records.
Murray (v. United States), however, demonstrates that the independent- source doctrine can apply even though the State knew the hospital's blood test would show an unlawful BAC. . . . Murray teaches that the independent-source doctrine applies when the State has a separate reason to seek the challenged evidence apart from the knowledge it gains from an unlawful search.
Here, the State had ample reasons to subpoena Van Linn's medical records for evidence of OWI, apart from what it learned from the deputy's unlawful blood draw. At the accident scene, the deputy found Van Linn's car crashed into the back of a cabin. His investigation revealed that Van Linn had veered off the road and into a ditch, where he hit a tree. The deputy smelled an "intoxicant" on Van Linn, and Van Linn admitted to having had "a couple of beers." While Van Linn was en route to the hospital, the deputy also learned that Van Linn had a reduced BAC restriction of 0.02. Moreover, the deputy arrested Van Linn for OWI prior to conducting the unlawful blood draw. . . . (T)he testing results of the deputy's unlawful blood draw "only served to confirm [the State's] prior suspicions": that Van Linn's BAC was over the legal limit. Stated differently, the State's decision to subpoena Van Linn's medical records was not prompted by what it learned from the deputy's unlawful blood draw.
Granted, the State did not subpoena Van Linn's medical records until after the circuit court suppressed the deputy's unlawful blood draw. Van Linn argues that the State's subpoena is therefore the "direct result" of the deputy's unlawful conduct because, but for that conduct, there would have been nothing for the circuit court to suppress. And but for the circuit court's suppression decision, the State would not have subpoenaed the hospital. We hold that, despite the timing of the State's subpoena request, suppression is not justified for two reasons.
First, in the exclusionary-rule context, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the strict but-for causality Van Linn presses here. The "more apt question" for whether the exclusionary rule applies is: did the State "exploit" the deputy's unlawful conduct? In this case, the State did not exploit the deputy's illegal conduct because, as explained above, the State had reasonable grounds to suspect Van Linn of OWI prior to anyone drawing his blood. Additionally, the blood-test evidence contained in Van Linn's medical records is "untainted" by the deputy's unlawful conduct because the hospital drew Van Linn's blood for its own diagnostic and treatment purposes, not at the direction of law enforcement.
Second, suppressing the hospital's blood-test results would not further the purpose of the exclusionary rule, which is to deter police misconduct. The circuit court's suppression of the deputy's warrantless blood draw remedied the police misconduct in this case. Suppressing the hospital's diagnostic blood test, however, would have no further deterrent effect because it involved no police conduct at all, let alone misconduct. Moreover, suppressing the hospital's blood test runs counter to the exclusionary rule because it would put the State in a worse position than it occupied absent the deputy's unlawful conduct.
Law enforcement drew Daniel Van Linn's blood without a warrant. He refused to give consent for the blood draw, but an officer nevertheless proceeded to extract his blood.
No exception to the warrant requirement permitted such a search. After the circuit court suppressed the fruits of the State's unconstitutional foray, the State waited three months to try an end run around the Fourth Amendment and the circuit court's suppression ruling. It subpoenaed hospital records containing the information that the circuit court had earlier suppressed—Van Linn's blood alcohol content.
Providing the State with an insurance policy in the event of an unconstitutional search, the majority tells law enforcement not to worry. The majority's message is: "If you violate a person's Fourth Amendment rights and the resulting evidence is suppressed, there will be no consequences because you can still gain the information through other means."
In contrast, my message is: "Get a warrant." This entire appeal would not exist if law enforcement had simply sought a warrant in the first place.
This court should not promote a search first and warrant later approach. And it certainly should not be condoning an approach that undermines the essence of the exclusionary rule, which is to prevent—not to repair.
In giving its imprimatur to the State's tactic, the majority justifies its determination by invoking the independent source doctrine. Its rationale rests on two assertions: (1) that the State did not "exploit" the illegal search because it had "reasonable grounds" to suspect Van Linn of OWI before either law enforcement or medical personnel drew his blood; and (2) that disallowing the subpoena would have no effect on police misconduct.
The first of these rationales answers the wrong question, obscuring the true inquiry of whether the unconstitutional search "prompted" the subpoena. And the second insulates law enforcement from the consequences of its unconstitutional actions. In doing so, the majority ignores that the consequence of its decision is to give a do-over to law enforcement in the event evidence gained through an unconstitutional search is suppressed.
Because the majority obscures the constitutional inquiry, erroneously concludes that suppression of the hospital sample would have no effect on police misconduct, and turns the exclusionary rule on its head by creating a perverse incentive for law enforcement to conduct warrantless searches, I respectfully dissent.
Despite the perverse incentive created by the majority opinion, the next officer to confront this situation should still just get a warrant. Indeed, the entire argument before this court would have been avoided from the get-go if law enforcement would have simply sought a warrant for the first draw of Van Linn’s blood. Judicial efficiency appreciates it and the constitution demands it.
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