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Grassi v. People

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

February 18, 2014

Ronald Brett Grassi, Petitioner
v.
The People of the State of Colorado, Respondent

Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals. Court of Appeals Case No. 09CA400.

Judgment Affirmed.

SYLLABUS

In this suppression matter, the supreme court considers whether the police possessed probable cause pursuant to the fellow officer rule to draw blood from an unconscious driver following a motor vehicle accident, even though the officer who actually ordered the blood draws lacked independent probable cause. The supreme court holds that the fellow officer rule imputes information that the police possess as a whole to an individual officer who effects a search or arrest if (1) that officer acts pursuant to a coordinated investigation and (2) the police possess the information at the time of the search or arrest. Because the record in this case reflects that the police as a whole, pursuant to a coordinated investigation, possessed probable cause to believe that the defendant had committed an alcohol-related offense at the time of the blood draws, the fellow officer rule imputed that probable cause to the officer who ordered the blood draws, meaning no Fourth Amendment violation occurred. Accordingly, the supreme court affirms the judgment of the court of appeals.

Attorneys for Petitioner: Douglas K. Wilson, State Public Defender, Ned R. Jaeckle, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado.

Attorneys for Respondent: John W. Suthers, Attorney General, Brock J. Swanson, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado.

OPINION

Page 333

BOATRIGHT, JUSTICE.

Page 334

[¶1] We granted certiorari to determine whether the police possessed probable cause pursuant to the fellow officer rule to draw blood from an unconscious driver following a motor vehicle accident, even though the officer who actually ordered the blood draws lacked independent probable cause.[1] We hold that the fellow officer rule imputes information that the police possess as a whole to an individual officer who effects a search or arrest if (1) that officer acts pursuant to a coordinated investigation and (2) the police possess the information at the time of the search or arrest. Because the record in this case reflects that the police as a whole, pursuant to a coordinated investigation, possessed probable cause to believe that the defendant had committed an alcohol-related offense at the time of the blood draws, the fellow officer rule imputed that probable cause to the officer who ordered the blood draws, meaning no Fourth Amendment violation occurred. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the court of appeals.

I. Facts and Procedural History

[¶2] On September 4, 2003, Petitioner Ronald Brett Grassi was involved in a single-car accident at approximately 3:50 a.m. Grassi, the driver of the car, suffered serious injuries, and a passenger in the car was killed. Paramedics transported Grassi to a local hospital for treatment, where he remained unconscious for several hours.

[¶3] At 4:17 a.m., Trooper Benavides arrived at the crash site. Because the accident had resulted in a fatality, Trooper Benavides contacted both his supervisor and an accident reconstruction team through the police department's dispatch unit. Trooper Benavides then " walked the crash site," searching for the potential cause of the accident. He discovered no evidence of skid marks, yaw marks,[2] or roadway obstruction, nor any suggestion that the driver had applied the brakes. Furthermore, the weather conditions were " clear and dry and . . . fairly warm." Based on his preliminary observations, Trooper Benavides could find no external explanation for the crash, instead testifying that " [i]t looked like the car just ran off the right side of the roadway."

[¶4] At 4:58 a.m., Trooper Waters, an accident reconstruction specialist, arrived on the scene. Over the next two hours, Trooper Waters examined the crash site and ultimately corroborated Trooper Benavides's initial suspicions, concluding that no " mechanical defects or failures occurred that could have contributed to or . . . caused the crash." Moreover, Trooper Waters deduced at the scene that the driver of the vehicle had likely followed the fog line[3] off of the roadway, which " [i]ntoxicated drivers have a propensity" to do. Trooper Waters completed his investigation prior to the time of the blood draws.

[¶5] Meanwhile, shortly after 5:00 a.m., Corporal Riley directed Trooper Duncan to travel to the hospital where Grassi was being treated. Specifically, Corporal Riley assigned Trooper Dunca[4] the task of investigating whether a male driver had recently been transported from the crash site and to obtain a blood draw if Trooper Duncan determined " that alcohol was involved." Trooper Duncan arrived at the hospital shortly after

Page 335

5:30 a.m. and learned from a paramedic that Grassi was the driver who had been injured in the accident. Although Grassi remained unconscious, Trooper Duncan detected a strong odor of alcohol emanating from Grassi's mouth. Trooper Duncan then ordered a blood draw, which a phlebotomist[5] performed at 7:12 a.m.; the phlebotomist later conducted a second blood draw at 7:51 a.m. Prior to these blood draws, the police knew collectively that Grassi had been driving the vehicle when it crashed, that no road conditions or other external factors appeared to have caused the crash, that Grassi's driving was consistent with that of an intoxicated driver, and that his breath smelled of alcohol. The blood draws then revealed that Grassi's ...


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