The U.S. Supreme Court, in Mitchell v. Wisconsin, held on June 27, 2019 that, “When police 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 police have a reasonable opportunity to administer a standard evidentiary breath test, they may almost always order a warrantless blood test to measure the driver’s blood alcohol content (“BAC”) without offending the Fourth Amendment.”
In this case, Gerald Mitchell was arrested for operating his vehicle while intoxicated after a preliminary breath test registered a BAC that was three times Wisconsin’s legal limit for driving. The arresting officer drove Mitchell to the police station in order to administer a more reliable breath test on him. Upon arrival there, Mitchell was too lethargic to take that breath test so the officer drove him to a nearby hospital for a blood test. Upon arrival there, Mitchell was unconscious. His blood was drawn anyway under that state’s law that presumes that a person incapable of withdrawing implied consent to BAC testing has not done so. The blood analysis showed Mitchell’s BAC to be above the legal limit and he was charged with violating two drunk-driving laws.
Mitchell moved to suppress the results of the blood test on the ground that it violated his Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable searches” because it was conducted without a warrant. The trial court denied his motion to suppress and Mitchell appealed his case all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court where they affirmed the lower courts’ rulings. Mitchell then appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the matter and framed the issue as “[w]hether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.” And while the Court did acknowledge that their focus was on the unconscious motorist who is given a warrantless blood test, they actually never directly addressed the issue as they framed it. Rather, they held as was previously mentioned in paragraph one above.
However, the Court also carved out two delimiters for its “almost always” exception and they are as follows: (1) if the Defendant would be able to show that his blood would not have been drawn if police had not been seeking BAC information; i.e., the blood was drawn specifically for BAC purposes; and, (2) if the defendant would be able to show that police could not have reasonably judged that a warrant application would interfere with other pressing needs or duties; i.e., the police had ample time to secure a search warrant before the blood was drawn. The Court then vacated the judgment of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin and remanded the case for further proceedings in order to allow Mitchell to address the two delimiters the Court established for its “almost always” exception. And, since Wisconsin already admitted that the officer had time to secure a search warrant but chose not to, I would expect Mitchell to prevail on retrial. And finally, the Court’s holding here, if read and interpreted as written, neither adds to nor detracts from a defendant’s Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. Rather, it clarifies the arguments a defendant must make. In that sense it is fair.