In June, the United States Supreme Court decided
Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 139 S. Ct. 2525 (2019)—a case involving the issue of whether the
police can take blood evidence from an unconscious driver without a warrant in
DUI cases. The Court reached a plurality decision, holding that a warrant is not
necessary for police to take blood evidence from an unconscious driver
if there are exigent circumstances to justify doing so.
Fourth Amendment Protections Against Unreasonable Searches
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits
the state from performing an unreasonable search and seizure of a person.
In general, a police search must be supported by a warrant indicating
that the police has probable cause to search someone for evidence of a
crime, signed by a judge or magistrate.
When police conduct a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) test, it is considered
to be a search of a person. Thus, BAC tests are only valid if supported
by a warrant. In
Mitchell, the police drew blood from the defendant without a warrant when he was
unconscious. This would qualify as an unconstitutional search unless an
exception to the warrant requirement applied.
The Exigent Circumstances Exception
The Supreme Court has consistently held that a warrant is not required
for a police search to be considered reasonable, in situations where there
is a compelling need for official action and the government does not have
enough time to get a warrant. For example, a warrant is not necessary
in cases where the destruction of relevant evidence is imminent, and a
warrantless search could prevent such destruction. The Court also noted
that the need to protect public safety through effective enforcement of
DUI laws based on accurate evidence was a compelling need for official action.
Because BAC evidence is subject to natural metabolic processes, there is
a limited window of time for police to obtain such evidence. However,
the ephemeral nature of BAC evidence does not necessarily mean the court
can categorically validate warrantless blood tests as an exigency. The
Court emphasized that an additional factor must be present to make conducting
BAC test sufficiently urgent. For example, if police are too bogged down
with more important duties related to the DUI, it would be unreasonable
to require them to secure a warrant in light of such responsibilities.
Mitchell, the Court found that drawing the defendant’s blood to secure BAC
evidence was reasonable because his unconsciousness prevented the police
from conducting a chemical breath test.
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