FRANKFORT — Investigators erred by taking a blood sample from an unconscious Jessamine County woman without her consent and without a warrant, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Justices struck down the 24-year sentence of Melissa Helton, who pleaded guilty to four counts of murder after a drunken-driving crash in 2006. Three of the victims were children, including Helton's son.
Justice Mary Noble, writing for the majority, said sheriff's deputies improperly took the blood sample while Helton was being treated for injuries at a Lexington hospital. That, Noble said, violated Helton's constitutional rights.
Investigators claimed Helton was drunk when a minivan she was driving ran off Watts Mill Road south of Nicholasville, hit a tree and burst into flames on Aug. 22, 2006. The wreck occurred after a trip to a local swimming spot. Three passengers — Helton's son, Nicholas Helton, 12, and two other children, Emily Ann Preston, 10, and Caleb Hildenbrandt, 11 — died in the crash.
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Passenger Lori Latham, 40, died the following November of complications from injuries received in the crash. Melissa Helton's preteen daughter Madison survived the wreck.
Melissa Helton had a blood-alcohol level of 0.16, or twice the legal limit of 0.08, according to Kentucky State Police. According to her indictment, she was driving more than 30 mph above the 35 mph speed limit on Watts Mill Road.
Helton, who is in her 40s, pleaded guilty in January 2008 to murder, wanton endangerment and driving under the influence charges.
She initially asked Jessamine Circuit Judge C. Hunter Daugherty not to allow the blood sample, which showed she was legally drunk, as evidence in the case. When Daugherty refused, Helton entered a conditional guilty plea.
The Supreme Court ordered the trial judge to conduct a new suppression hearing to determine whether evidence exists that shows investigators had reasonable grounds to believe alcohol was involved in the accident.
Noble said the case isn't about whether blood can be drawn from an unconscious person. "When the officer does have reasonable grounds, the test may be done on a person, even if she is unconscious, without violating the Fourth Amendment," she wrote in a 16-page ruling.
Noble said the issue is whether police had probable cause to believe Helton was drunk before the blood test was done.
"Unfortunately, that is not in the record," she said.
Justice Will T. Scott issued a dissenting opinion, saying that Helton's attorney conceded in the appeal that investigators had reason to believe alcohol was involved.
Scott, citing testimony from the original suppression hearing, said officers "perceived" Helton to be "in a stupor" when they decided to do the blood test.
Scott cited statements from the suppression hearing that the officers talked to Helton about the blood test and that she did not refuse but just "sort of passed out."