DUI and acquiring evidence: New rules govern subpoena challenges

It is not uncommon for individuals suspected of driving under the influence to undergo some form of medical testing to determine if their blood-alcohol content exceeds the legal maximum. This is especially true following a traffic accident that police believe may have been the result of intoxication.

Typically, the state will issue a subpoena to the hospital for the defendant's medical records in order to learn what his or her blood-alcohol level was. Until recently, the defendant could not challenge this subpoena request. The rule in Tennessee was absolute: you cannot challenge a subpoena issued to someone else. The reasoning was based on a Tennessee statute that allows someone who is served with a subpoena to fight it. Since the statute makes no mention of a third party, the courts concluded, a third party had no right to challenge it. This categorical rule was adopted back in 1975.

State v. Harrison

This changed in 2008, however, when the Tennessee Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of State v. Harrison. That case involved a man charged with sexual assault. The defense argued that he was not competent to stand trial, and had him evaluated by a psychologist. The prosecution subpoenaed the psychologist's records, which the defense and psychologist disputed. The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the subpoena, based on the rule that was in effect at the time.

The Tennessee Supreme Court, however, reconsidered. It ruled that the blanket rule was too broad, and failed to consider that "the objecting party may have a recognized, legally protectable interest with regard to materials in the hands of a third party." It is important to keep in mind, however, that this rule does not automatically mean a subpoena on a third party is invalid. Instead, it just means that someone may challenge it, and the question of validity will still be based on the validity of the subpoena itself.

DUI Context

This is important for DUI cases because prosecutors will frequently seek medical records in the hands of a third party to determine whether the defendant was intoxicated at the time of arrest.

The recent case of State v. McLain from the Court of Criminal Appeals bears this out. In it, the defendant was involved in a single-vehicle accident and taken to the hospital. When police arrived at the hospital to speak with him, he was physically unable to perform a field sobriety test, but the police officer believed he smelled alcohol on the defendant. The defendant was charged with driving under the influence, and a blood test performed by the hospital was subpoenaed.

He originally lost at the Court of Criminal Appeals, as this case happened before Harrison. He was able to file an appeal with the Tennessee Supreme Court due to a procedural issue, however, and this appeal came after Harrison was decided in 2008. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Court of Criminal Appeals with instructions to analyze it in light of Harrison. The Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that Harrison applied, and then concluded that the subpoena for the defendant's blood was improperly issued as it was signed by a clerk rather than a judge, which went against state law. The court then quashed (threw out) the subpoena and dismissed the case.

DUI cases can be complex, and as this article demonstrates there are a number of legal and practical issues that come into play. For that reason, if you are charged with DUI, it is important to obtain qualified representation as soon as possible.