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Supreme Court Rules Police Can Order Blood Drawn from Unconscious DUI Suspects

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At the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that could impact the constitutional rights of individuals who are suspected of drunk driving. In a narrow 5-4 ruling, the Court upheld a Wisconsin court ruling allowing police to draw blood from an unconscious DUI suspect without a warrant and without the suspect’s permission – under Wisconsin’s implied consent laws.

The case, Mitchell v. Wisconsin, involved an individual named Gerald Mitchell, who was arrested on suspicion of DUI and taken to a hospital for a blood test. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Mitchell was unconscious and therefore unable to consent to the test. The police went ahead and ordered the test anyway without getting his consent and without taking the time to obtain a warrant.

Mitchell contended that the blood draw violated his Fourth Amendment rights to be secure in his person unless a warrant was obtained. After losing his case in the Wisconsin courts, the Supreme Court agreed to hear his appeal.

The ruling in Mitchell v. Wisconsin seemed to contradict a prior ruling from 2013, in which the Court found it unconstitutional to draw someone’s blood without a warrant, except in extreme cases. The opinions of the justices (in this case) were all over the place. Four of the five justices who voted to uphold the Wisconsin court decision argued that there were “exigent circumstances” which necessitated that the officers draw blood from the suspect without a warrant.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority, “Drivers who are drunk enough to pass out at the wheel or soon afterward pose a much greater risk. It would be perverse if the more wanton behavior were rewarded…” Alito went on to say that in this situation, forcing the police to put off more pressing tasks to get a warrant would have “terrible collateral costs.”

Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the majority, agreeing that because the blood in a driver’s system will dissipate over time, the “exigent circumstances” doctrine could be applied to this case. But he also wrote separately that the majority ruling “adopts a rule more likely to confuse than clarify” this issue.

There were also two separate dissents in this decision. Justices Sonya Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan argued that in the lower courts, the state of Wisconsin never invoked the “exigent circumstances” doctrine, and in fact had admitted that there would have been ample time to obtain a warrant in this case. The state simply argued that a warrant was not necessary because of Wisconsin’s implied consent laws.

Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented separately, arguing that the ruling failed to resolve the underlying issue for which the court originally agreed to take the case:

We took this case to decide whether Wisconsin drivers impliedly consent to blood alcohol tests thanks to a state statute. 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.

Wisconsin’s implied consent laws are similar to those of 28 other states, and state appellate courts have been sharply divided in recent years over the question of whether blood draws violate the Fourth Amendment rights of motorists. It was hoped that the Supreme Court would bring some clarification to this issue, but unfortunately, that did not happen.

How Does the Supreme Court Ruling Impact the Rights of Kentucky Motorists?

Kentucky’s implied consent law allows police to administer a breath or blood test if you are arrested on reasonable suspicion of DUI. You have the right to refuse this test, but there are consequences for doing so. Namely, you will be subject to an automatic administrative suspension of your driver’s license. If you refuse a blood test, however, police must generally obtain a warrant to administer the test. This will continue to be true even after their recent Supreme Court ruling.

Justice Thomas is probably correct that this ruling is more likely to confuse than clarify the exigent circumstances doctrine, and the Supreme Court will probably need to revisit this issue in the future. In Kentucky, however, the law only allows police to draw blood from a motorist without a warrant when there is physical injury or death involved. 

There is no state precedent for allowing a blood draw from an unconscious DUI suspect, and if it were to happen in the Commonwealth, there is a good chance that it would not hold up in state court. Still, the Supreme Court ruling is cause for concern, because it opens the door for further intrusions into our personal space. And this is why we need to be eternally vigilant and defending our constitutional rights.