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Arizona Supreme Court Holds That Officer’s Assertion of Lawful Authority to Search Does Not Negate Totality of the Circumstances Test

The Arizona Supreme Court held last month that a trial court should examine the totality of the circumstances to decide whether consent to a search was voluntary, even when it was given after a law enforcement officer’s assertion of his lawful authority to search. Put differently, an officer’s assertion of his lawful authority to search does not negate the court’s need to engage in a totality of the circumstances test to determine whether consent was voluntary.

In August 2012, an Arizona officer found appellant Francisco Valenzuela asleep in the driver’s seat of his stopped truck with the engine running. After spotting an open container, detecting an odor of alcohol, and observing other signs that Valenzuela was impaired, the officer arrested Valenzuela on suspicion of a DUI.

The officer took Valenzuela to a police station and read him a form providing that “Arizona law requires you to submit to and successfully complete tests […] to determine alcohol concentration or drug content.” The officer stressed this requirement a total of four times and warned that a refusal would result in a driver’s license suspension. Valenzuela cooperated and stated he understood. He then submitted to breath and blood tests. Based in part on these test results, Valenzuela was charged with five counts of aggravated DUI.

Valenzuela moved to suppress the test results, arguing that he did not voluntarily consent to the tests, and therefore his Fourth Amendment rights were violated. Following a suppression hearing, the trial court denied the motion, reasoning that Valenzuela voluntarily consented to the search under the totality of the circumstances. Valenzuela was convicted of two counts of aggravated DUI.

On appeal, Valenzuela argued that his consent to the breath and blood tests must be deemed involuntary because he consented only after the officer advised that Arizona law required him to submit to testing. The state responded, and the court of appeals agreed, that the totality of the circumstances evidenced Valenzuela’s voluntary consent to the search.

Examining the totality of the circumstances, the majority concluded that the trial court did not err in finding Valenzuela’s consent voluntary. While recognizing the general need to examine the totality of the circumstances, the dissenting judge reasoned that when the evidence shows that the police asserted lawful authority to search, a court’s analysis has ended, and voluntary consent cannot be found as a matter of law.

The Arizona Supreme Court granted Valenzuela’s petition for review because it presented a recurring and important legal question in the state.

The state high court reasoned that precedent required the court to examine the circumstances surrounding an assertion of lawful authority to search to determine whether the consent was sufficiently independent of the assertion to remove its taint. If not, the consent was not freely and voluntarily given.

While acknowledging the potential difficulty of proving consent was given voluntarily after an assertion of lawful authority to search, the court found that this difficulty of proof should not preclude the analysis. For example, the court explained, consent conceivably could be voluntary if, after an officer asserts lawful authority to search, the officer retracts that assertion or an attorney advises that the search is not lawfully required before the suspect consents. In these cases, a court might legitimately find that any subsequently granted consent was not compelled by the assertion of authority.

For these reasons, the court held that a trial court should examine the totality of the circumstances to decide whether consent was given voluntarily, even when it was given after a law enforcement officer asserts lawful authority to search.

Applying this test to the case at hand, the high court held that the state failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that Valenzuela’s consent was voluntary. By telling Valenzuela multiple times that Arizona law required him to submit to and complete testing, the officer invoked lawful authority and effectively proclaimed that Valenzuela could not resist the search.

At the time of these repeated admonitions, Valenzuela had been arrested and taken to a police station. Nothing in the record suggested that the officer retracted his assertion of lawful authority or that other circumstances existed to dispel the coerciveness of the admonitions before Valenzuela gave his consent. With no evidence to dispel the coercive implications of the officer’s admonitions, the trial court erred in finding that Valenzuela had voluntarily consented to the search.

The state alternatively argued that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied. The Arizona high court agreed that the good-faith rule, which prevents the suppression of evidence when the officer acted with an objectively reasonable good-faith belief that his conduct was lawful, applied here. While the court held that consent given solely in response to the admonition used here was not free and voluntary, at the time of the events, the officer followed binding precedent that had sanctioned the use of the admonition to Valenzuela. Thus, the good-faith exception applied, and the court therefore properly denied the motion to suppress.

If you have been charged with a DUI crime in Illinois, it is crucial to speak to an experienced Illinois DUI lawyer as soon as possible. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides knowledgeable representation to people in Springfield and throughout Illinois. We have considerable experience defending individuals charged with DUI offenses and representing drivers with revoked licenses before the Illinois Secretary of State. To learn more, and to set up a free initial consultation, contact us online or call us at 217.525.0520.

More Blog Posts:

New Mexico Governor Announces Program to Monitor DUI Cases, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, May 2, 2016.

Florida Judge Upholds Defendant’s 33-year Sentence for DUI Manslaughter, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, April 6, 2016.

The Seventh Circuit Favors Illinois’ Hands-Free Statute Over Indiana’s No-Texting Statute, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, April 1, 2016


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