Colorado Supreme Court allows police pass-along of probable cause

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Imagine having a car accident in which you are rendered unconscious, and then wake up to find your blood has been drawn at the hospital without your consent. Afterward you find out that information gathered from the accident scene after the fact has been passed along from one policeman to another. Eventually the information goes to the officer at the hospital, who orders a blood draw with probable cause based on the secondhand information.

This really happened in the case of Grassi v. People, where a motorist ran off the road and crashed, resulting in serious injuries to himself and the death of his passenger. Although he was unconscious and did not interact with any police officer, deductions were made and sent up the chain of communication that led to a charge of DUI, manslaughter and vehicular homicide.

Officials and police descend on crash site

The motorist in Grassi had been transported to the hospital by paramedics where he remained unconscious for several hours. Meanwhile, more police and accident reconstruction personnel were contacted and came to the crash site. No skid marks or yaw marks were visible on the road, leading the trooper first at the scene to give the opinion that the driver had not tried to brake.

The accident reconstruction specialist walked the crash site for two hours and corroborated the trooper’s suspicions that there were no mechanical problems or defects that could have caused the crash. The observations of the troopers at the scene were combined and passed along to the trooper at the hospital. After being led by the paramedics to the unconscious driver at the hospital, the trooper assigned to find out if alcohol was involved in the crash smelled alcohol on his breath, and ordered blood tests on the strength of all the shared information.

Fellow officer rule allows for cooperative investigation

Under the fellow officer rule, all police officers working as a team in a coordinated investigation are presumed to have all the same knowledge. Therefore, when law enforcement officers work as a team, each individual officer need not have the particularized knowledge himself to obtain a search warrant.

In Grassi, the knowledge of the troopers at the scene was imputed to the trooper at the hospital, giving him probable cause to order the blood draw. The timing of the imputation was important; the driver argued that the rule only applies to the knowledge the police have at the time of their initial assignment. The prosecution’s view was that in an ongoing investigation, information obtained after an initial contact can be the basis of a search warrant.

Evidence of collective observations enough for probable cause

Information collected by police at the scene of the car accident of unknown origin was claimed to have been developed prior to the blood draws. The observations, including the first trooper’s opinion that the motorist’s driving had caused the crash, and that he was under the influence of alcohol, were taken together to allow the court to find probable cause for the DUI tests.

Previous Colorado cases have stated that an odor of alcohol alone is not probable cause to believe a person is under the influence of intoxicants; neither is an admission by a driver that he had several beers over a long evening. This information may create a suspicion, but does not rise to the level of probable cause. If you or a loved one is accused of driving under the influence, you need to contact an attorney immediately to protect your rights.