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State v. Sauter

Supreme Court of North Dakota

March 22, 2018

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
Steven Wayne Sauter, Defendant and Appellant

          Appeal from the District Court of Barnes County, Southeast Judicial District, the Honorable Troy J. LeFevre, Judge.

          Lilie A. Schoenack, Special Assistant State's Attorney, Valley City, ND, for plaintiff and appellee.

          Nicholas D. Thornton (argued) and James A. Teigland (on brief), Fargo, ND, for defendant and appellant.



         [¶ 1] Steven Wayne Sauter appealed from a judgment entered upon a conditional guilty plea to criminal vehicular homicide, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress the results of a warrantless blood-alcohol test. Sauter argues there was not sufficient evidence to support the district court's decision that exigent circumstances permitted the warrantless blood-alcohol test. We conclude the warrantless blood-alcohol test was authorized under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement. We affirm the judgment.


         [¶ 2] On August 31, 2016, around 10:55 p.m., a fatal motor vehicle crash occurred in Barnes County, North Dakota. Highway Patrol Officer Paul Sova arrived at the scene at approximately 11:19 p.m. Officer Sova learned the driver of one of the vehicles was deceased. He also learned that the driver of the other vehicle, Sauter, had suffered life-threatening injuries, was in and out of consciousness, and that a "life-flight" was on its way to the scene. Officer Sova was unable to personally observe Sauter because he was receiving medical attention in the ambulance.

         [¶ 3] Officer Sova marked the accident scene for forensic analysis, took pictures, interviewed witnesses, and made various phone calls. Officer Sova contacted his supervisor, Sgt. Matthew Denault, at midnight. Officer Sova informed Sgt. Denault that Sauter was going to be life-flighted to Fargo. Officer Sova requested Sgt. Denault go to the hospital in Fargo to continue the investigation. Officer Sova went to notify the family of the death.

         [¶ 4] When Sgt. Denault arrived at Sanford Hospital, Sauter was not in his room. Based on the information provided by Officer Sova, Sgt. Denault knew alcohol may be a factor, but wanted to further investigate the matter before he applied for a search warrant to obtain a blood test. Sauter was returned to his room approximately 20 minutes after Sgt. Denault arrived. Sauter was intubated, unconscious, and non-responsive. Sgt. Denault detected an odor of alcohol coming from Sauter and decided to apply for a search warrant to obtain a blood test.

         [¶ 5] Sgt. Denault called the "on-call" Cass County State's Attorney, Cherie Clark, at 1:39 a.m. Clark advised that Sgt. Denault call the jail to find out which judge was "on-call." Sgt. Denault then called the jail and was told to call the Cass County State's Attorney. Instead, Sgt. Denault called dispatch, but was informed they did not have access to the judge's phone numbers. He was then transferred to the Fargo Police Department. Sgt. Shane Aberle told him that the "on-call" investigator could assist him. Sgt. Denault was waiting for the investigator to call him back when he learned Sauter was being prepped for surgery. Due to the extent of Sauter's injuries, Sgt. Denault was concerned Sauter could be in surgery for a lengthy period of time and that the alcohol, if any, in his system would dissipate. Sgt. Denault asked a nurse to do a blood draw and placed Sauter under arrest for driving under the influence at 2:51 a.m. The blood draw was done at 2:59 a.m.

         [¶ 6] Sauter was charged with a class A felony criminal vehicular homicide. Sauter moved to suppress evidence based on the warrantless search and seizure of his blood. The district court denied the motion because the search was constitutional based upon exigent circumstances.


         [¶ 7] The standard of review of motions to suppress evidence is well-established:

We give deference to the district court's findings of fact when reviewing a motion to suppress evidence. The district court is in a superior position to assess the credibility of witnesses and weigh the evidence, and conflicts are resolved in favor of affirmance. A district court's findings of fact on a motion to suppress will not be reversed if there is sufficient competent evidence fairly capable of supporting the court's findings, and the decision is not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. Matters of law are fully reviewable by this Court on appeal.

State v. Morales, 2015 ND 230, ¶ 7, 869 N.W.2d 417.


         [¶ 8] "Unreasonable searches and seizures are prohibited by the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, made applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment, and by Article I, Section 8, of the North Dakota Constitution." Morales, 2015 ND 230, ¶ 8, 869 N.W.2d 417. "The administration of a blood test to determine blood-alcohol concentration is a search under those constitutional provisions." Id. "Warrantless searches are unreasonable unless they fall within one of the recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement." Id.

         [¶ 9] "In suppression cases, the defendant has the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case that the evidence was illegally seized." Id. (citing State v. Glaesman, 545 N.W.2d 178, 182 n.1 (N.D. 1996)). "Thereafter, the burden shifts to the State to prove a warrantless search falls within a recognized exception to the warrant requirement." Morales, 2015 ND 230, ¶ 8, 869 N.W.2d 417. "Absent an exception to the warrant requirement, the exclusionary rule requires suppression of evidence obtained ...

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