Lawyer seeks to block blood evidence in fatal Pickstown DUI case
LAKE ANDES — Investigators should have obtained a search warrant before taking blood samples of a man accused of driving drunk and killing two pedestrians July 8 in Pickstown, a lawyer said Friday.
Tim Whalen, the lawyer for 29-year-old Ronald Fischer Jr., is seeking to suppress any evidence related to blood samples taken from his client after the crash. Whalen’s argument comes as a result of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
A hearing on the motion was held Friday at the Charles Mix County Courthouse in Lake Andes. Judge Bruce Anderson will issue a decision at a later date.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case known as Missouri v. McNeely, ruled that performing a blood test without a search warrant is a violation of a suspect’s constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure. Possible exceptions in some drunken driving cases, given special circumstances such as time constraints or the potential destruction of evidence, were left open in the Supreme Court’s decision.
Fischer, of Lake Andes, is accused of killing 25-year-old Maegan Spindler, of Cazenovia, N.Y., and 46-year-old Robert Klumb, of Pierre. Fischer faces multiple charges, including first-degree manslaughter, a felony with a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $50,000 fine. Spindler and Klumb were killed when Fischer allegedly hit them at highway speed with his vehicle while the two were standing in a motel parking lot.
Spindler was working as a summer fisheries technician assistant for Klumb, the lead research biologist in the Pierre office for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Charles Mix County Sheriff Randy Thaler testified during Friday’s hearing. He described what he saw when he arrived at the scene of the crash.
“It was total chaos, basically,” Thaler said.
Several of his deputies, he said, had already started collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses, but Fischer had already been taken by ambulance to Wagner Community Memorial Hospital in Wagner.
Kelly Marnette, with the state Attorney General’s Office, argued the officers at the scene were occupied with various duties and lacked the time or means to get a search warrant the night of the crash. Marnette appeared for the prosecution along with Assistant Attorney General Brent Kempema and Charles Mix County State’s Attorney Tom Deadrick.
Upon learning Fischer allegedly smelled of alcohol after the crash, Thaler said he told one of his deputies, Travis DeBuhr, to get a blood sample from Fischer at the hospital in Wagner before he was taken to another hospital in Sioux Falls.
“I didn’t have time to obtain a search warrant,” Thaler said. “It had to be acted on right then.”
South Dakota’s implied consent law allows officers to take blood from drivers suspected of drunken driving without asking for permission from the suspect or seeking a warrant. Since the Supreme Court’s McNeely decision, several defendants in South Dakota have attempted to suppress blood sample evidence based on the decision, with varying results.
The South Dakota Supreme Court has not yet ruled on what, if any, impact the McNeely decision will have on the state’s implied consent laws.
DeBuhr was able to obtain the blood sample, but testified he arrived only moments before the transport helicopter landed.
“They were landing as I was pulling into the parking lot,” DeBuhr said.
Fischer was treated at the Wagner hospital by Jeffrey Pinter, an emergency room physician. Pinter testified Friday that he would not have delayed Fischer’s transfer to allow law enforcement to collect a blood sample.
A blood sample had already been taken from Fischer for medical purposes — not for law enforcement — at the hospital in Wagner and found his blood alcohol content was 0.274 shortly after the crash, Pinter said. That’s nearly 3.5 times the legal limit for driving in South Dakota, which is 0.08.
South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Casey Bassett, who arrived at the scene of the crash more than an hour after it occurred to assist in the investigation, ordered a second law enforcement blood sample — the third overall — be taken from Fischer.
“It shows whether or not the person is going up or down in their (blood alcohol content),” he said, testifying at Friday’s hearing.
Bassett, who said he was needed at the scene to assist in a reconstruction of the crash, asked Highway Patrol Trooper Jeremy Gacke to locate Fischer at the Sioux Falls hospital and obtain a another blood sample.
Gacke said because of Fischer’s medical treatment, he was unable to obtain the additional blood sample until after midnight — more than two hours after the first law enforcement blood sample was taken.
“If I had known it was going to be that long, I probably would have gotten a search warrant,” he said.
Whalen claimed Gacke should have known to get a search warrant, but Gacke maintained that he was unaware how long it would take to obtain the blood sample from Fischer.
The results of the two law enforcement blood tests were not mentioned during Friday’s hearing.