July 1, 2019

Police don't need a warrant to test unconscious drivers' blood, SCOTUS rules

Daily Briefing

    The Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision issued Thursday upheld Wisconsin's so-called "implied consent" law, which states that drivers automatically consent to a blood draw when they get behind the wheel, even if they are unconscious.

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    Case details

    The high court issued the ruling in a six-year-old case involving Gerald Mitchell, who was under the influence of drugs and alcohol when police officers found him on a beach in Wisconsin. Mitchell told the police that he had stopped driving and parked his car because he "felt that he was too drunk to drive."

    A breath test showed that Mitchell's blood-alcohol level was three times over the legal limit. The police then transported Mitchell to a hospital, where clinicians performed a blood draw on Mitchell, who had fallen unconscious.

    Mitchell later was convicted of driving while intoxicated. Mitchell challenged the conviction, arguing that Wisconsin's implied consent law violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which requires officers to have a warrant for a search. According to NPR, police officers under the Fourth Amendment generally are required to have a warrant in order to compel a blood draw.

    However, Wisconsin's implied consent law dictates that anyone who drives consents to a blood draw the moment they begin operating a vehicle. Under the law, conscious drivers can withdraw that consent at the risk of losing their driver's license, but unconscious drivers cannot withdraw consent, and therefore are presumed to have given consent for the blood draw.

    There are similar laws in 28 other states.

    State courts upheld Mitchell's conviction, prompting Mitchell to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    SCOTUS upholds Wisconsin's implied consent law

    The Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin's implied consent law does not violate the Fourth Amendment, and that a warrant generally is not required to draw blood from an unconscious driver suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

    In the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the "exigent circumstances" in such cases allow police to obtain a blood sample from an unconscious driver without a warrant. For instance, he wrote, "Police officers most frequently come upon unconscious drivers when they report to the scene of an accident, and under those circumstances, the officers' many responsibilities—such as attending to other injured drivers or passengers and preventing further accidents—may be incompatible with procedures that would be required to obtain a warrant." He continued, "Thus, when a driver is unconscious, the general rule is that a warrant is not needed."

    Justices Stephen Breyer, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas agreed with the majority ruling. Thomas in a concurring opinion wrote that Wisconsin and other states can invoke the "exigent-circumstances doctrine" to draw blood without a warrant or consent, because the evidence of alcohol in a driver's blood disappears over time, and therefore waiting for unconscious drivers to wake up to give or decline consent could mean the police would not have a chance to collect pertinent evidence.

    Though the justices ruled to uphold Wisconsin's implied consent law, they also decided to send Mitchell's case back to the lower courts to allow Mitchell to prove the circumstances surrounding his case did not require officers to proceed without a warrant.

    Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the majority opinion. Gorsuch and Sotomayor in separate dissents wrote that the majority erred by basing their ruling on exigent circumstances instead of an analysis of Wisconsin's implied consent law, NPR reports.

    Gorsuch wrote, "We took this case to decide whether Wisconsin drivers impliedly consent to blood alcohol tests thanks to a state statute. That law says that anyone driving in Wisconsin agrees—by the very act of driving—to testing under certain circumstances. But the Court today declines to answer the question presented. Instead, it upholds Wisconsin's law on an entirely different ground—citing the exigent circumstances doctrine."

    According to NPR, the Supreme Court's latest decision is at odds with previous rulings in which the Court restricted the police's ability to draw blood without a warrant or a driver's consent. For example, the Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that the police violated the Constitution when they ordered a blood draw in a routine DUI case without a warrant or consent from the motorist.

    Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (D) praised the Court's latest decision, saying, "This law helps protect communities from impaired drivers" (Hurley/Chung, Reuters, 6/27; Totenberg/Chappell, NPR, 6/27; Wolf/Phillips, USA Today, 6/27; AP/TIME, 6/27).

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