TOULON — A Stark County judge has thrown out some key evidence in a long-running criminal case alleging that a Brimfield truck driver was under the influence of marijuana when an unusual traffic accident claimed the life of a Wyoming woman more than three years ago.
Circuit Judge Bruce Fehrenbacher agreed Friday to suppress blood and urine test results and also statements made to police by defendant Timothy Schwenk soon after the pre-dawn accident that killed 41-year-old Corina Miller on July 11, 2017.
Fehrenbacher granted a defense motion to that effect after finding at a hearing that there was no probable cause for the lab tests and that Schwenk was not advised of his constitutional rights against self-incrimination even though he was effectively in police custody for more than four hours after the accident.
Schwenk was "questioned without being given his Miranda rights," Fehrenbacher said. "There's no evidence that he was given any warnings of any kind."
Schwenk, now 51, was backing a milk tanker truck across both of lanes of traffic into a dairy farm along Illinois Route 17 west of Toulon at 4:42 a.m. that day. Miller, who was driving west, apparently did not see him and drove under the tanker, police said at the time.
Two deputies who responded to the scene, including one who drove Schwenk to a hospital for the lab tests, both testified later that they saw no indication that he was under the influence, according to information presented in court by defense attorney Thomas Dluski. But it's standard department policy to have blood and urine samples taken when accidents involve death or serious injury, they also testified, according to the attorney.
"Nobody had any kind of reasonable suspicion or probable cause," Dluski said.
Schwenk also was taken to jail, where he was told to write a statement, and he was questioned further there and later at the accident site. He disclosed that he had been going through "a difficult time" and had been "self-medicating" with marijuana, Dluski said.
Schwenk was issued only a citation for the traffic offense of unsafe backing on a roadway that day. But based on statements and lab results showing cannabis, he was later charged with aggravated DUI causing death or serious injury, a felony punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
The prosecution's position is that the statements and lab samples were given voluntarily as he was not under arrest. The policy requiring the lab tests is intended to mirror state statutes, State's Attorney Jim Owens indicated.
Fehrenbacher rejected that argument and agreed with defense contentions.
Obtaining the samples required probable cause and a warrant, and Schwenk was never advised that he had any choice in whether to cooperate, the judge said.
"He was clearly in detention," the judge said. "He wasn't free to go."
Owens requested a transcript of the hearing soon after it ended, suggesting he may intend to seek reconsideration of the ruling. No trial date has been set, but Fehrenbacher scheduled an Oct. 9 case review.
Gary L. Smith can be reached at (800) 516-0389 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Glsmithx.