State v. Bucklew, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-659 (Dec. 7, 2021)

temp. stay granted, 380 N.C. 288, 866 S.E.2d 900 (Jan. 12, 2022)

In this Martin County case, the defendant was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, felony serious injury by vehicle and driving while impaired for his driving of a vehicle after consuming prescription medications, crossing into oncoming traffic, hitting two other vehicles, and seriously injuring another driver.

(1) The defendant, who was seriously injured in the crash and was taken to the hospital, had a “few coherent moments” in which he agreed to allow his blood to be withdrawn and analyzed for evidence of impairment. The defendant subsequently moved to suppress evidence of the blood analysis on the basis that there was not probable cause to believe he was driving while impaired, the blood was withdrawn without a warrant, and there were no exigent circumstances. The trial court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals found no error. The Court first determined that the following evidence established probable cause: (a) a witness called 911 to report erratic driving by the defendant before the defendant crashed his vehicle into two other vehicles; (b) there were no skid marks at the scene to indicate that the defendant attempted to stop his vehicle; (c) the defendant admitted to taking oxycodone, valium, and morphine earlier in the day; and (d) after the crash, the defendant was lethargic, had slurred speech, droopy eyelids, and a blank stare. The Court then concluded that exigent circumstances existed as the officer did not have time to obtain a search warrant given the extent of the defendant’s injuries; indeed, the hospital postponed administering necessary pain medication to the defendant until after the State withdrew his blood. After the blood draw, the defendant was air-lifted to another hospital for a higher level of care.

(2) The defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to take judicial notice of the National Weather Station’s weather conditions (the “Weather Report”) on the date of the collision. The Court of Appeals disagreed, reasoning that the Weather Report was not a document of indisputable accuracy for purposes of Rule 201(b) of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence because it did not state the level of rain that was occurring at the time of the crash. Thus, the Court of Appeals reasoned, the trial court was not required to take judicial notice of the report under Rule 201(d), but was free to use its discretion pursuant to Rule 201(c). And, the Court of Appeals concluded, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to take judicial notice of the Weather Report.

(3), (4) The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred in admitting testimony from an analyst regarding the analysis of defendant’s blood, the analyst’s report, and the accompanying chain of custody report. The Court of Appeals found no error. The Court determined that the analyst’s testimony and his report were admissible because, even though the analyst relied on data collected by and tests performed by others, the analyst himself analyzed and reviewed the data, forming his own independent expert opinion and writing his own report. The Court further held that the trial court did not err by admitting the chain of custody report because the State established an adequate chain of custody through testimony of the law enforcement officer who submitted the blood and the analyst who prepared the report.

(5) The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not err in denying defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence. Defendant’s erratic driving, the severity of the crash, his admission to taking medications, his impaired behavior, and the results of the analysis of defendant’s blood provided substantial evidence of impaired driving. Defendant’s driving in an erratic and reckless manner while impaired and crashing into another vehicle without appearing to have braked, seriously injuring the other driver provided substantial evidence of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury. Finally, the serious injury to the other driver caused by defendant’s impaired driving provided substantial evidence of felony serious injury by vehicle.

Judge Dietz concurred in the judgment, writing separately to state that he would have resolved the suppression issue solely based on the evidence of impairment establishing probable cause and the exigency resulting from the need to draw blood before medical professionals administered additional medications.