June 27, 2019

Supreme Court Decides Mitchell v. Wisconsin

On June 27, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Mitchell v. Wisconsin, No. 18-6210, holding that the exigent-circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement almost always permits a blood test without a warrant when a breath test is impossible.

A Wisconsin police officer responding to a report that Gerald Mitchell was driving in a van while drunk found Mitchell wandering near a lake. The officer gave Mitchell a preliminary breath test, which registered his blood-alcohol content as 0.24 percent, well above the legal limit. The officer arrested Mitchell for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. He drove Mitchell to a police station to administer a more reliable breath test with better equipment. By the time they reached the station, Mitchell was so lethargic that he could not do a breath test. The officer drove Mitchell to a nearby hospital for a blood test. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Mitchell was unconscious and had to be wheeled into the hospital. Hospital staff drew a blood sample, which showed a blood-alcohol content of 0.222 percent.

The state charged Mitchell with violating two drunk-driving provisions. He moved to suppress the results of the blood test, arguing that it violated his Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable searches” because it was done without a warrant. The trial court refused to suppress the evidence, and a jury convicted Mitchell of the charges. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals certified two questions to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, one of which was whether a blood draw from an unconscious person violates the Fourth Amendment. The Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the blood draw did not violate the Fourth Amendment and upheld Mitchell’s conviction.

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case back to the Wisconsin Supreme Court for further proceedings. A four-Justice plurality explained that the exigent-circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement applies when there is a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant. The plurality then held that in this case, the need for a blood test was compelling because evidence (i.e., the alcohol in the blood) was being destroyed by the body, and that there was no time to secure a warrant because Mitchell faced a medical emergency that required transporting him to a hospital, where he would have a blood draw in the course of his medical care. Requiring a warrant, the plurality concluded, would take police officers away from the pressing medical need that they had to respond to. The plurality ended by stating that it could not rule out the possibility that Mitchell would be able to show that his blood would not have been drawn if the police had not been seeking blood-alcohol-concentration evidence, and that the police could not have reasonably concluded that applying for a warrant would interfere with other pressing needs or duties. Thus, the Court remanded the case back to the Wisconsin Supreme Court for further proceedings.

Justice Thomas concurred only in the judgment, explaining that he believes there should be a per se rule that officers may draw blood without a warrant in any case where they have probable cause to believe the driver is drunk, and that the exception that the plurality created was unsupported. Justice Thomas therefore provided the fifth vote in support of the decision.

Justice Alito delivered an opinion in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer and Kavanaugh joined. Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch filed dissenting opinions.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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