Supreme Court Holds that Warrantless Blood Tests of Unconscious Drivers Are ‘Almost Always’ Authorized under the Fourth Amendment

Earlier this year, FEDagent reported on oral argument heard before the Supreme Court in Mitchell v. Wisconsin, a case that asks whether a state statute permitting a warrantless blood draw of an unconscious driver is authorized under the Fourth Amendment. Recently, the Supreme Court issued its decision on that case, and held that when a driver is unconscious and cannot be given a breath test, the exigent circumstances doctrine permits a blood test without a warrant.

As we previously reported, on May 30, 2013, police officers were dispatched in response to a report that an intoxicated individual was driving a gray van. The gray van was parked near a beach in Wisconsin. Officer Alex Jaeger found Gerald Mitchell walking near the beach. Mitchell was wet, shirtless, and covered in sand. Mitchell slurred his speech and had difficulty maintaining his balance. He told Officer Jaeger that he parked his car because he felt that he was too drunk to drive.

Officer Jaeger did not believe it would be safe to conduct standard field sobriety tests, and instead, administered a preliminary breath test. The breath test indicated a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.24 percent. Officer Jaeger then arrested Mitchell for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. On the drive to the police station, Mitchell’s condition deteriorated and Office Jaeger opted to transport Mitchell to a nearby hospital for a blood draw. Under Wisconsin law, a driver who operates a vehicle on state roads is assumed to consent to have his blood drawn for alcohol and drugs.

At the hospital emergency room, Officer Jaeger read to Mitchell a form that notified him of his statutory opportunity to withdraw his consent to a blood draw. However, Mitchell was “so incapacitated [that] he could not answer.” Officer Jaeger ordered the hospital staff to draw a sample of Mitchell’s blood, and the staff complied with this order. Mitchell was not awake during the procedure. The sample registered a BAC of 0.222 percent, and Mitchell was subsequently charged with driving while intoxicated.

Prior to trial, Mitchell moved to suppress the results of the warrantless blood draw, alleging the blood draw violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment and Wisconsin Constitution. The circuit court denied Mitchell’s motion to suppress, concluding that Officer Jaeger had probable cause to believe that Mitchell was driving while intoxicated, making the blood draw lawful. A jury convicted Mitchell of the charged offense.

Mitchell appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court his conviction on the argument that the warrantless blood draw violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Wisconsin Supreme Court found that under state law, Mitchell voluntarily consented to a blood draw by his conduct driving on Wisconsin’s roads and drinking to a point evidencing probably intoxication. The court also found that by drinking to the point of unconsciousness, Mitchell forfeited all opportunity, including the statutory opportunity under Wisconsin law, to withdraw his consent. The court then affirmed Mitchell’s conviction.

Mitchell filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, and the Supreme Court granted the petition. Justice Samuel Alito announced the judgment of the Court and delivered its opinion.

The Court began by noting that blood draws are Fourth Amendment searches. The Court explained that while a warrant is normally required for a lawful search, there are well-defined exceptions to this rule, including the exigent circumstances exception. Per the Court, the exigent circumstances exception allows warrantless searches to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence.

The Court stated that in this case it was required to address how the exception bears on the category of cases encompassed by the question in which it granted certiorari – those involving unconscious drivers. The Court stated that in those cases the need for a blood test is “compelling,” and an officer’s duty to attend to more pressing needs may leave no time to seek a warrant. Per the Court, the “bottom line” is that blood draws are needed for “enforcing laws that save lives.” Specifically, “[h]ighway safety is critical; it is served by laws that criminalize driving with a certain BAC level; and enforcing these legal BAC limits requires efficient testing to obtain BAC evidence, which naturally dissipates.” The Court stated that “when a breath test is unavailable to advance those aims, a blood test becomes essential.” Referring to unconscious drivers, the Court opined that “[i]t would be perverse if the more wanton behavior were rewarded – if the more harrowing threat were harder to punish.”

In Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013), and Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966), the Court addressed whether the exigent circumstances exception covers blood draws of drunk-driving suspects in light of the fact that blood alcohol evidence dissipates due to “natural metabolic processes.” In McNeely, the Court found that the “fleeting quality” of blood alcohol evidence alone is not enough to trigger the exigent circumstances exception. However, in Schmerber, the Court found that the exigent circumstances exception applied after a drunk driver was involved in a car accident, the police officers had other pressing duties and “further delay” caused by a warrant application “would have threatened the destruction of evidence.”

Here, the Court explained that a driver’s unconsciousness creates pressing needs considering that unconsciousness is a medical emergency. The Court explained that police can reasonably anticipate that an unconscious driver might require monitoring, positioning, and support on the way to the hospital; that his blood may be drawn for diagnostic purposes upon arrival; and that immediate medical treatment could delay or distort the results of a blood draw, reducing its evidentiary value. The Court stated that just as the ramifications of a car accident pushed Schmerber over the line into exigency, so does the condition of an unconscious driver.

The Court held that “when police officers have probable cause to believe a person has committed a drunk-driving offense and the driver’s unconsciousness or stupor requires him to be taken to the hospital or similar facility before they administer a standard evidentiary breath test, they may almost always order a warrantless blood test to measure the driver’s BAC without offending the Fourth Amendment.” The Court left open the possibility that in an “unusual case,” the Court’s general rule would not apply where a defendant shows that his blood would not have been drawn if police had not been seeking the BAC information, and that police did not have any reason to believe that a warrant application would interfere with other pressing needs or duties. The Court remanded the case to provide Mitchell an opportunity to make that showing.

Read the full case: Mitchell v. Wisconsin


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, Associate Attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

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