The US Supreme Court ruled Thursday in Mitchell v. Wisconsin, a case surrounding the administration of a warrantless blood alcohol concentration (BAC) test to Mitchell who was unconscious at the time of the test.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote that in such circumstances where the driver is unconscious, the court holds that the “exigent circumstances rule almost always permits a blood test without a warrant.”
In reaching this conclusion the court discusses case precedent, looking to Schmerber and McNeely to determine where this case sits on the exigency spectrum.
McNeely was about the minimum degree of urgency common to all drunk driving cases. In Schmerber, a car accident heightened that urgency. And here Mitchell’s medical condition did just the same. Mitchell’s stupor and eventual unconsciousness also deprived officials of a reasonable opportunity to administer a breath test.
The court noted that there are exceptions to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, and under the exception for exigent circumstances, a warrantless search is allowed when “there is compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.”
To determine whether exigency exists where a suspected drunk driver is unconscious, the court looked at two elements: whether the BAC evidence is dissipating, and when some “other factors creates pressing health, safety, or law enforcement needs which would take priority over an application for a warrant.”
Thus, when a driver is unconscious, the court imposed the general rule that a warrant is not needed.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately, concurring with the judgement, but arguing that the court should apply a per se rule that he had proposed in McNeely—that “the natural metabolization of alcohol in the blood stream creates an exigency once police have probable cause to believe the driver is drunk regardless of whether the driver is conscious.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan in dissent, arguing that under the Fourth Amendment police officers must always seek to get a warrant before ordering a blood draw. “When the aim of a search is to uncover evidence of a crime, the Fourth Amendment generally requires police to obtain a warrant.”
Sotomayor argued that warrants serve as a “check against searches that violate the Fourth Amendment by ensuring that a police officer is not made the sole interpreter of the Constitution’s protections.” Further, the dissent noted that a blood draw provides access to information beyond the BAC level, and as such is an invasion of bodily integrity which “disturbs an individual’s expectations of privacy.”
Additionally, the dissent argued that precedent cases Schmerber and McNeely “establish that there is no categorical exigency exception for blood draws, although exigent circumstances might justify a warrantless blood draw on the facts of a particular case.”
The dissent also noted that the exigency exception was not an argument that Wisconsin presented at any point throughout the proceedings of this case. Rather, Wisconsin had conceded that the exigency exception does not apply to this case and would not justify the warrantless blood draw. Sotomayor pointed out that the Supreme Court is a court of review, and stated that the court “is not in the business of volunteering new rationales that were neither raised nor addressed below.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote separately to dissent, arguing that the case should have been dismissed and the question of the exigent exception and circumstances which would create such an exception should be considered in another case that presents such circumstances.