The United States Supreme Court has held that a warrantless blood test conducted on an unconscious driver does not violate the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights. The case is Mitchell v. Wisconsin.
In this case, upon receiving a report of a drunk driver, local police officers shortly discovered the visibly intoxicated driver stumbling near a lake. After conducting a breath test for blood alcohol concentration (BAC), authorities learned that Mitchell had a BAC level three times Wisconsin’s legal limit. The police arrested Mitchell for drunk driving. Due to the driver’s sluggishness, however, authorities could not conduct a more advanced breath test with “evidence grade equipment.” Instead, authorities delivered an unconscious driver to a hospital. A blood test confirmed that the driver’s intoxication was above a legal level. Subsequentially, the driver was charged with driving under the influence.
The driver sought to suppress the blood test results “on the ground that it violated his Fourth Amendment right against ‘unreasonable searches’ because it was conducted without a warrant.” Wisconsin’s Supreme Court decided that the blood test did not violate Mitchell’s constitutional rights. Drawing from precedent established in the Supreme Court’s Schmerber v. California (1966) ruling, Justice Alito explained that the lack of a warrant was “justif[iable]” when waiting for a warrant “threatened the destruction of evidence.” The Schmerbercase involved the legality of a blood test conducted on a drunk driver involved in a car accident. Justice Alito posited that both the Schmerber and the Mitchellcases present circumstances where “an officer’s duty to attend to more pressing needs may leave no time to seek a warrant.” Applying Schmerber, Justice Alito stated that exigent circumstances exist when both “BAC evidence is dissipating” and when “pressing health, safety, or law enforcement needs . . . take priority over a warrant application.” In the case of an unconscious drunk driver, the two circumstances are present to condone blood tests conducted without a warrant.
The plurality opinion offers a caveat. The Supreme Court ultimately vacated the Supreme Court of Wisconsin’s decision against Mitchell and ordered a remand despite its opinion’s language concerning the compelling need for blood tests for incapacitated drivers. Justice Alito explained that the Court cannot “rule out the possibility that in an unusual case a defendant would be able to show that his blood would not have been drawn if police had not been seeking BAC information, and that police could not have reasonably judged that a warrant application would interfere with other pressing needs or duties.” By issuing a remand, the Supreme Court allows Mitchell to try to prove the latter scenario. (Although this seems unlikely – ed.)
This case raised substantial issues for defendants accused of drunk driving. The opinion, if extended, could mean that because alcohol disappears from the blood with time, police should be able to perform a blood test whenever they suspect someone of drunk driving – conscious or not. In many cases, however, a defense may still be raised on the question of whether the police really had to choose between getting a warrant for a blood test and dealing with the problems created by a drunk driver.