Supreme Court Rules Police Can Draw Blood From Drivers Without Warrant

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The Supreme Court has ruled that police may order blood drawn from an unconscious person suspected of driving under the influence without a warrant. While that sounds like a possible violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches, justices in support of the practice claimed individuals consent to blood tests just by being on the road.

Their rationale? Wisconsin and a bunch of other U.S. states have laws that already make this legal and there’s a national precedent allowing for exigent circumstances. But let’s start with America’s Dairyland for some background.

In 2013, a Wisconsin man named Gerald Mitchell was found by police with his van parked near Lake Michigan while he took a stroll on the beach. According to an account from NPR, neighbors had contacted emergency services to warn authorities that he was drunk and suicidal. When confronted, Mitchell took a breath test and was transported to a nearby hospital for blood work.

Earlier accounts claimed police immediately believed him to be drunk due to his being shirtless, damp, and staggering. However, during their trip to the hospital, Mitchell passed out in the car. Police ordered his blood drawn anyway. According to court documents, had taken a sizable amount of pills and washed it down with vodka and Mountain Dew and was charged at the hospital for driving under the influence. He later confessed to being extremely intoxicated and suicidal.

However, he also felt that having his blood drawn without consent violated the Fourth Amendment, especially since he wasn’t in the vehicle, and started the appeals process — making it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States (Mitchell v. Wisconsin) in April of this year.

In a 5-4 vote on Thursday, the court upheld a Wisconsin law stipulating that anybody driving on a public road has automatically consented to having their blood drawn if police suspect them of a possible DUI. The court also noted that exigent circumstances, which is the national status quo gives cops the right to make such judgements for themselves.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “exigent circumstances,” it’s basically any and all exceptions to the general requirement of a warrant under the Fourth Amendment searches and seizures. Police can search your home, person, vehicle, pull you over, arrest you, or (apparently) take your blood without permission if they suspect some criminal wrongdoing. Critics of the practice have claimed that, since there’s no clear standard for a rule applied so broadly, it encourages an abuse of power. The problem, they say, is that officers are effectively green lit to take extreme actions against citizens and their property with no guidelines when they probably should have been forced to procure a warrant.

Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayo emphasized that in lower courts, Wisconsin officials had already admitted there had been ample time to get a warrant — but believed the step wasn’t needed because of the state’s implied consent rules. “Wisconsin has not once, in any of its briefing before this Court or the state courts, argued that exigent circumstances were present here,” she argued. “In fact, in the state proceedings, Wisconsin ‘conceded’ that the exigency exception does not justify the warrantless blood draw in this case.”

Sotomayor was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan as Neil McGill Gorsuch claimed the issue never should have reached the Supreme Court in the first place. Meanwhile, Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh joined Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority vote to uphold Wisconsin’s law.

From NPR:

In his concurring opinion, Thomas wrote that because the evidence of alcohol in drivers’ blood will dissipate over time, states can invoke the “exigent-circumstances doctrine” on that basis alone to allow police to order a blood test without a warrant. Explaining why he took a stand apart from Alito’s plurality opinion, Thomas wrote that it “adopts a rule more likely to confuse than clarify.”

Alito’s concurring opinion agreed that speed is vital in obtaining blood-alcohol evidence. But he also said that the demands on police officers’ time contribute to creating exigent circumstances that allow an exception to warrant requirements — especially if an unconscious motorist has caused a crash. And he noted that police usually take such drivers to the emergency room — removing their chance of administering a breath test at the police station.

“Indeed, not only is the link to pressing interests here tighter; the interests themselves are greater: Drivers who are drunk enough to pass out at the wheel or soon afterward pose a much greater risk,” Alito wrote. “It would be perverse if the more wanton behavior were rewarded — if the more harrowing threat were harder to punish.”

Discussing the emergency conditions created by unconscious drivers, Alito said that “forcing police to put off other tasks for even a relatively short period of time may have terrible collateral costs. That is just what it means for these situations to be emergencies,” he wrote, in an opinion that was joined by Breyer, Kavanaugh and Roberts.

[Image: Paul Biryukov/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Rudiger Rudiger on Jun 29, 2019

    I suspect there is a direct connection between this SCOTUS decision and the widely reported and bodycam video of the incident involving Salt Lake police detective Jeff Payne and University of Utah hospital nurse Alex Wubbels. On July 26, 2017, there was a horrific head-on collision between a fleeing driver being chased by another police dept and a semi on the highway. The fleeing driver died at the scene and the truck driver was badly burned and taken, unconscious, to nurse Wubbels' medical facility. Detective Payne arrived a few hours later at the hospital and, at the request of the pursuing police agency (surely to cover their asses), demanded a sample of the unconscious semi driver's blood without a warrant from the nurse on duty, Alex Wubbels, citing 'implied consent'. Unfortunately for Detective Payne, the Salt Lake PD had agreed to a policy to not do exactly this about a year prior. Payne claimed no knowledge of the policy, so Nurse Wubbels provided Detective Payne with a copy. After cooling his heels for a couple hours, and discussing it with his superior, Payne had had enough of being told "No" by nurse Wubbels, grabbed the struggling, shrieking nurse (it sure looked like resisting arrest), slapped the cuffs on her, and told her she was being arrested for failure to comply and interferring with police. After sitting her in a police cruiser for a while, and Payne and his boss trying unsuccessfully to change her mind, they released her. The other PD had also told Payne and his boss (before Wubbels' manhandling) to disregard the request but Payne went ahead and roughed her up, anyway. Payne was subsequently fired and his supervisor demoted. The gist is that, just like police having free license to do anything they want (including blowing people away) by simply saying, "they feared for their lives", with this latest SCOTUS ruling, all they have to say to get an unconscious person's blood is that they "suspect them of driving under the influence" with exactly zero legitimate probable cause.

    • See 1 previous
    • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Jun 29, 2019

      @Get Necked Ya Dumb Nigger! The police department in question fired him only after videos of the arrest hit the internet and their was an associated outcry. He also worked as an EMT. They fired him immediately. No public outcry needed.

  • -Nate -Nate on Jun 29, 2019

    The #1 thing ignored here is : driving is _not_ a right ~ . If you drive you should be willing to follow the rules . I agree that this guy having not been in his vehicle should have not been forced to give blood but that's an entirely different situation apart from you who know you're going to break the law crying wolf about 'nanny state' , 'librals' (of course) and the rest of the tripe you snowflakes always spew when you're feeling guilty . Try acting responsibly once in your lives . -Nate

    • See 4 previous
    • -Nate -Nate on Jun 30, 2019

      @Tele Vision You just explained why driving is a privilege and not a right . -Nate

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