Unconscious DUI Suspects May Have Blood Drawn by Police, SCOTUS Rules

Florida DUI defense attorneys know that a key part of due process in these cases from the very beginning is that if police want to secure blood from a suspect who is unwilling, they’re going to need a warrant first.DUI defense

Of course, there are exceptions, which the U.S. Supreme Court has just drastically expanded. But as noted in tersely-written dissents in Mitchell v. Wisconsin from Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonya Sotomayor, the court ended up deciding a question it was never asked.

This case arose from an incident in Wisconsin, which like Florida and dozens of other states, has an implied consent law. Similar to Florida’s implied consent law, Wisconsin holds that drivers who assume the responsibility of controlling a motor vehicle on public roads also accept the responsibility to submit to chemical testing if asked by a law enforcement officer with reasonable suspicion of DUI. In Florida, this is applicable to breath and urine samples only, with failure to do so resulting in an automatic one-year license suspension.

In a 2013 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that extracting blood samples (sometimes deemed to produce more scientifically accurate results than the other two) are different because it requires a personal body intrusion. Thus, barring exigent circumstances, if a person refuses to submit to a blood test, police need to obtain a warrant to do so. A person who is unconscious cannot provide consent to such an act, and thus a warrant is required, defendant argued. But the state upheld his DUI conviction.

The question on appeal was whether the state’s implied consent law allowed police to extract a blood sample from an unconscious person.

The majority, however decided the case based on the principle of exigent circumstances. This is an issue Gorsuch and Sotomayor noted was never even raised by the state, which had already conceded the principle didn’t apply because police did have plenty of time and means to obtain a warrant (which can often be done quickly and electronically roadside).

“We took this case to decide whether Wisconsin drivers impliedly consent to blood alcohol tests thanks to a state statute,” Gorsuch wrote. “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.”

What Qualifies as an Exigent Circumstance?

Exigent circumstances are those that would cause a reasonable individual to deduce fast action was needed to:

  • Prevent physical harm;
  • Preserve relevant evidence from destruction;
  • Halt the escape of a suspect;
  • Stop some other consequence that might frustrate the judicial process.

As our Fort Lauderdale DUI defense attorneys can explain where impaired driving is concerned, the exigent circumstance most often cited is the fact that alcohol is rapidly processed by the human body and dissipates rather quickly. Thus, if an officer needs to wait for an extended period of time for a warrant to conduct a nonconsensual blood draw, valuable evidence (i.e., the person’s blood-alcohol level) could be lost.

But as we said, many warrants can be obtained quickly and electronically from the site of the stop, with magistrates and judges on call for such situations. Here, police said they could have obtained the warrant in a timely fashion, but the question was supposed to be whether the the state’s implied consent law allows warrantless blood draws from people who are unconscious or whether they are protected by the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure.

The court’s most recent decision seemingly flies in the face of the early 2013 ruling that held extraction of blood was more unique in that it is substantially invasive and thus required less intrusive means of collecting evidence, which includes getting a warrant. But two of the justices in the majority for that 5-4 decision are no longer on the court. This new court in another 5-4 majority ruled that the state’s implied consent law allows for non-consensual, warrantless blood draws for exigent circumstances.

Justice Samuel Alito’s concurring opinion noted that expedience is an imperative in DUI investigations where blood-alcohol evidence is concerned. He further noted that police officers’ time itself can be considered an exigent circumstance – especially if the unconscious DUI suspect is believed to have caused a crash.

Call Fort Lauderdale Criminal Defense Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Additional Resources:

Mitchell v. WisconsinJune 27, 2019, U.S. Supreme Court