Posted by Edmund R. Folsom, Esq.
August 12, 2020
U.S. v. Manubolu – Cops Had No Good Reason, For Taking the Easy Way Out.
On Monday, August 12, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the State of Maine issued an order granting a motion to suppress evidence in United States of America v. Praneeth Manubolu, 1:19-cr-00184-JAW. The issue was whether the results of a blood-alcohol test should be excluded from evidence in Manubolu’s criminal trial in U.S. District Court.
Manubolu crashed a vehicle on Acadia Park’s Loop Road in the early morning hours of August 31, 2019. His three passengers were killed. The U.S. Park Service has an arrangement with the Bar Harbor P.D. under which Bar Harbor officers agree to respond to calls within Acadia Park during park rangers’ off hours. The crash took place after midnight, so Bar Harbor P.D. took the call and were the first to respond. Manubolu was outside his vehicle when the first officer arrived. His only apparent injuries were some cuts and scrapes on his face and arms and a goose egg-sized bump under his right eye. Within 20 minutes of the first officer’s arrival, additional Bar Harbor P.D. officers and ambulance personnel were on scene. The medical personnel quickly determined the three passengers were dead. Within roughly a half hour of the first officer’s arrival, a park ranger was on scene, the Loop Road was closed to traffic by a Southwest Harbor officer, and the scene was controlled by multiple officers. At least one other officer was left free to deal exclusively with Manubolu. Manubolu admitted he drank a couple shots of whiskey in Bar Harbor. The park ranger on scene informed Bar Harbor P.D. that any case against Manubolu would be handled federally. The ranger made phone calls to 3 separate Assistant U.S. Attorneys, including the on-call AUSA, before Manubolu was transported to a hospital. The first 2 AUSA’s didn’t answer their phones. The third said he’d try to reach the on-call AUSA and have her contact the ranger. Before Manubolu was taken to the hospital, the park ranger on scene discussed with a Bar Harbor officer the officer’s authority to take Manubolu’s blood without a search warrant, under a Maine statute that purported to allow a warrantless blood draw because Manubolu was a driver in an accident involving death. By the time the on-call AUSA got back to the park ranger to discuss the situation, a Bar Harbor officer had already gone to the hospital and caused a sample of Manubolu’s blood to be drawn.
On February 1, 2020, I blogged about the Maine statute, 29-A M.R.S. §2522, that calls for police to take a blood sample without a search warrant, and even without probable cause, from a driver involved in a fatal accident. I wrote that blog post right after the Law Court finally gave up the charade, in State v. Weddle, and declared section 2522 unconstitutional. In Weddle, although the Law Court declared the statute and the search conducted pursuant to it unconstitutional, the Court did not apply the exclusionary rule to keep out the unconstitutionally gathered evidence of Weddle’s blood alcohol level. I ended my blog post as follows:
“The irony is that the procedures police relied upon appeared to be constitutional only because the Law Court ruled them constitutional in Cormier, despite U.S. Supreme case law that made it abundantly clear section 2522 searches are unreasonable Fourth Amendment searches.
What happens to our Fourth Amendment protections when they are not upheld by our state courts through faithful application of rules set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court? As a practical matter, they dissolve, don’t they? How do we deter that?”
As you might recall, the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures requires a search warrant to take a blood sample in a criminal investigation. When government agents don’t secure a search warrant, the search is constitutionally unreasonable unless a well-recognized exception to the search warrant requirement exists in the particular circumstances. In effect, the government’s pitch, when it conducts a search without a warrant, is like John Lennon’s line in Day Tripper. They claim: “Got a good reason, for taking the easy way out.” When it comes to impaired driving investigations, the reason the government usually claims for taking the easy way out is either the existence of probable cause and exigent circumstances or voluntary consent. You might also recall that even when a search violates the Fourth Amendment, because there is no warrant, no consent, and no probable cause combined with exigent circumstances, the illegally seized evidence still might be allowed into the case if the court finds that the officer’s reason for taking the easy way out falls within the “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule’s application. The good faith exception might apply if the officer relied on what reasonably appeared to be binding legal precedent, such as a statute that was previously declared constitutional by a court. The good faith exception is what saved the State’s bacon in Weddle. The same Law Court that previously declared section 2522 constitutional, declared that the Weddle officer’s reliance on its own declaration of constitutionality was good faith reliance. But what if the final authority on the matter – the U.S. Supreme Court – already made clear that a search conducted the way section 2522 sanctioned is unconstitutional? And what if the Supreme Court made that clear well before the officer relied on the Law Court’s contradictory interpretation of the Fourth Amendment’s protections? In that case, might another authority, outside the cozy little loop of the Law Court interpreting the reasonableness of an officer’s reliance on the Law Court’s odd interpretation of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, find the officer’s reliance more wishful than reasonable?
In Manubolu, the U.S. District Court found that police and park rangers lacked a good reason for taking the easy way out. When the officers conducted the search, on August 31, 2019, the Weddle case was on appeal to the Law Court. At that point, the Law Court’s prior declaration, in Cormier, that section 2522 was constitutional, was under challenge based largely on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 Birchfield case. The Manubolu Court rejected the government’s argument that the Bar Harbor officers and park rangers could escape application of the exclusionary rule. The Court held that reliance on section 2522, on August 31, 2019, was not reasonable, good faith reliance. First of all, Manubolu’s prosecution is in federal court. The alleged crimes happened in a national park, a federal enclave. There are federal criminal rules that apply to the investigation of impaired driving cases on federal land. Among those rules is a clear rule that government agents are not to take a blood sample without a search warrant unless they have probable cause combined with exigent circumstances. The Bar Harbor police officers are to be treated the same as the federal park rangers they worked with on the case. But not only do applicable federal rules require probable cause and exigent circumstances to justify a warrantless blood draw; on the date Manubolu’s blood was drawn U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence clearly taught that the Fourth Amendment requires the same thing. The U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is and is not an unreasonable search. A state statute purporting to allow a warrantless blood draw without exigent circumstances, or even probable cause, is not something park rangers could reasonably rely on. And yet, the park rangers did rely on it. It’s clear the reason they made no effort to secure a search warrant is that they believed section 2522 gave the Bar Harbor officers authority to take Manubolu’s blood without one.
Here is what the Manulobu Court had to say on the matter:
“The Court concludes that any reliance by Officer Hardy or Ranger Dominy on Cormier or section 2522 in drawing Mr. Manubolu’s blood was objectively unreasonable and that the purposes of the exclusionary rule are served by excluding the results of the ensuing blood draw. As the Court discussed above, section 2522 is facially incompatible with the McNeely decision. The unconstitutionality of section 2522 was underscored in Birchfield: it was beyond merely coercive, and instead mandated compliance with blood-testing.
Once the Supreme Court of the United States effectively overturns a state law, officers may not simply continue to rely in good faith on that state law until told otherwise by the highest court of their state and expect that the evidence generated by the unconstitutional search and seizure will be admitted in federal court. Vertical stare decisis is absolute. After McNeely, and certainly after Birchfield, Cormier was functionally overturned and reliance on it was unreasonable.
The purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter future Fourth Amendment violations. That purpose is served here. If the Court did not apply the exclusionary rule, local law enforcement officers would conclude that they can ignore the logical consequences of Supreme Court precedent and continue to apply statutes and lower court precedent that have been functionally overruled until those statutes and precedent are explicitly overruled—however long that may be—by their state’s highest court.” (Internal quotes and citations omitted).
Yup, it’s just a matter of breaking that cozy little loop.
But that did not settle the matter. The government argued that probable cause and exigent circumstances justified taking Manubolu’s blood without a warrant anyway. As to this, the Court focused on the exigent circumstances prong of the analysis (presumably because the Court found probable cause existed). The Court batted away arguments that the nature of the accident necessarily diverted police from securing a search warrant. After all, the officers knew very quickly that the passengers were deceased, plus medical personnel were quickly on scene to deal with the passengers, and multiple officers were there to secure and process the scene. The government also claimed that securing a warrant is a time-consuming process, pointing out that a park ranger would have had to go to his office, write and review his affidavit, print it out and get it to an Assistant U.S. Attorney, who would review it and work on a search warrant to be presented to a magistrate, etc. But there was nothing to indicate that any effort was made in that direction, at all, before the search was conducted. In fact, testimony at the suppression hearing made clear, the police and park rangers focused all along on a warrantless blood sample, under purported authority of section 2522. Here’s part of what the Manubolu Court had to say about the government’s exigent circumstances arguments:
“The Court recognizes that the process for obtaining a search warrant must be a deliberate one. But the time it takes to obtain a warrant through a process the USAO [U.S. Attorney’s Office] itself controls cannot serve as a de facto end run around McNeely’s holding that the dissipation of alcohol in the blood does not alone constitute a per se exigency. If the process the USAO puts in place means that an officer will never (or very rarely) be able to secure a warrant before evidence of intoxication has disappeared or become unreliable, then there will always be exigent circumstances and McNeely is irrelevant. This is even more so the case when, as here, the USAO does not adhere to its own process by ensuring that an on-call AUSA is available.
Given the prompt arrival of EMTs and the fact that Mr. Manubolu’s passengers were dead by the time of the EMTs’ arrival, according to Officer Hardy, the Government cannot demonstrate a pressing health or safety need that would take priority over a warrant application.
Additionally, the Government’s contention that pursuing a warrant would have taken too long is not sufficient to demonstrate a specific law enforcement need under Mitchell where there is no evidence that the officers on the ground made any concerted or urgent effort to obtain a warrant prior to drawing Mr. Manubolu’s blood and the evidence suggests that this is because those officers were relying, erroneously, on 29-A M.R.S. § 2522.
The Court concludes that, based on the factual record, the Government has not carried its burden to demonstrate that this was a “drunk-driving investigation where police officers [could not] reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample [could] be drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search.” The Court holds that the totality of the circumstances do not support a finding that exigent circumstances existed in this case justifying the warrantless blood draw.” (Internal quotes and citations omitted).
As the Manubolu Court pointed out, provisions for telephonic warrants have been in place for decades. It does not create exigent circumstances for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to choose not to use them, instead favoring more time-consuming procedures in formulating its warrant policies, and failing to make AUSA’s available to render timely advice to law enforcement. Oh sure, Manubolu is a federal case, so it doesn’t matter that the State pulls the same stunt, choosing not to create expedited warrant procedures for such circumstances, instead relying on a process that will almost certainly continue to weigh in its favor in exigent circumstances analyses in Maine courts. Right? But who is the higher authority when it comes to interpreting the demands of the U.S. Constitution – a state court or a federal court? Well, a federal court has spoken, and that federal court has said, in so many words, “Get off the dime. Take your thumb off the scale.” And that same federal court has warned Maine police officers, it is not reasonable to continue to act in reliance on a state statute or a Law Court case passing on the constitutionality of a particular practice once the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the practice violates the U.S. Constitution. Now that the cozy little circle has been pierced, intruded upon by a federal judge who has called-out the local emperor’s nudity, will there be any difference going forward? Will law enforcement continue to look for the easy way out, always as a matter of first resort, confident that their claimed good reason will fly with courts reluctant to risk serious crime going unpunished if the evidence gets suppressed? Or will law enforcement be pushed to comply with the constitution’s demands, by judges less willing to indulge post-hoc rationalizations, more willing to say: “You had no good reason, for taking the easy way out.”?
Ya, I’m not optimistic, either.