Officer Does Not Have to Provide Specific Basis for Knowledge of Facts in Washington Search Warrant Declaration

Defendants in Washington criminal cases often challenge the evidence used against them.  One way to challenge evidence is to challenge the validity of the search warrant used to obtain it.  When a court issues a search warrant, it must determine there is probable cause based on the facts presented to it.  This determination is the court’s responsibility and cannot be made by police officers, so there must be more than conclusory statements supporting the warrant.  The court is permitted, however, to draw reasonable inferences from the facts presented.

The defendant in a recent case challenged a search warrant.  According to the appellate court opinion, the defendant was convicted of vehicular assault after losing control of her vehicle and crashing into two other vehicles.  Subsequent blood tests found a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of 0.13 and 4.0 nanograms of THC.  The defendant appealed her conviction, arguing a lack of probable cause to support the warrant authorizing the blood draw.

The firefighter paramedic who responded to the scene saw a female driver who was barely conscious.  He transported her to the hospital.  He identified the defendant as the driver.

A trooper spoke to the defendant at the hospital.  He stated he smelled intoxicants and observed bloodshot eyes and horizontal gaze nystagmus.  He sought a warrant for her blood. In his declaration, he stated that the defendant rear ended another vehicle and lost control and collided head on with another vehicle.  In support of his belief the defendant was under the influence of or affected by alcohol, marijuana or any drug, he stated that, when he was finally able to speak with the defendant, she had the odor of intoxicants on her breath and bloodshot eyes.  He also stated he could see horizontal gaze nystagmus.  He also stated his beliefs were based on information he obtained through interviewing witnesses and law enforcement officers, reviewing reports, and personal observations.  A judge found probable cause the defendant’s blood would reveal evidence of DUI.

The defendant moved to suppress the blood test results, arguing the declaration only contained a conclusory statement that she was the driver.  The court denied the motion. The defendant was sentenced to 11 months of confinement.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trooper did not state the basis for his knowledge she had been the driver.  The appeals court found, however, that the declaration did not have to provide that information to be sufficient to support the warrant.  The declaration gave details of the collision and stated the defendant was the driver.  It also stated she lost control of the vehicle.  The declaration also stated the information was obtained from personal interviews, review of reports, and personal observations.  This line was pre-printed on the form, but the appeals court found that did not prevent it from explaining the basis of the statements in the declaration.  Based on the information provided, the judge was able to find probable cause.  The appeals court found no error in the trial court’s decision to uphold the warrant.

The appeals court did, however, find the defendant was indigent and therefore not subject to the $200 criminal filing fee imposed on her.  The appeals court remanded with instructions for the trial court to strike the filing fee, but otherwise affirmed the conviction.

This case shows that courts will not require law enforcement to provide detailed information on how they know each fact stated in a declaration.  It may be sufficient for the officer seeking the warrant to use a generic statement from a pre-printed form to explain how the information in the declaration was acquired.

Although the court found this warrant was valid, the validity of a warrant depends heavily on the facts of the specific case.  If you are facing a DUI, an experienced Seattle DUI attorney will fight to protect your rights.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation.