CRIMINAL PROCEDURE: Search & seizure – Implied consent, blood testing, unconscious defendant: Melissa Helton v. Commonwealth of Kentucky (SC 8/27/2009)

Melissa Helton v. Commonwealth of Kentucky
2008-SC-000141-MR August 27, 2009
Opinion by Justice Noble; all sitting.

Helton entered a conditional guilty plea to wanton murder and DUI charges that stemmed from a car accident where four children were killed. After the accident, police took a blood sample from an unconscious Helton without a warrant. On appeal, Helton argued that KRS 189A.105(2)(b), which requires police to seek a warrant for blood, breath and urine testing in all motor vehicle accidents involving fatalities, trumped KRS 189A.103(3)(a)—Kentucky’s implied consent law. The Court rejected this argument, holding that the fact that Helton was unconscious did not nullify her statutorily implied consent. The Court noted that 189A.105(2)(b) requires a warrant only where testing has not already been done by consent.

The Court then turned its attention to the constitutional issue: does a warrantless blood test of an unconscious suspect violate the right against unreasonable searches and seizures. After discussing leading United States Supreme Court opinions on the subject, the Court concluded that so long as authorities have reasonable grounds to believe alcohol was involved in the accident, there is no constitutional bar to testing an unconscious person without giving them an opportunity to refuse the test. However, the Court held that in this instance, there had been no proof taken at the suppression hearing on the issue of whether the police had reasonable grounds for the blood test. The Court reversed the conviction and remanded to the trial court for a new suppression hearing. Justice Scott dissented, agreeing with the majority on the all issues except that a new suppression hearing was warranted, asserting that Helton’s own subsequent admissions combined with the evidence on record was sufficient to establish reasonable grounds.

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