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Name: Mitchell v. Wisconsin
Case #: 18-6210
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 06/27/2019
Subsequent History: 139 S.Ct. 2525

When a drunk-driving suspect is unconscious and cannot be given a breath test, the exigent circumstance exception to the warrant requirement almost always permits a warrantless blood draw. Police received a report that Mitchell, who was drunk, climbed into a car and drove away. When found, Mitchell was wandering near a lake, stumbling and slurring his words. A preliminary field breath test revealed a BAC of 0.24% and Mitchell was arrested. On the way to the police station for a more reliable breath test, he lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital instead. His blood was drawn and reflected a BAC of 0.22%. After he was charged with drunk driving offenses, Mitchell moved to suppress the blood test results as obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The State relied on its implied consent law to justify the blood draw. The motion was denied and Mitchell’s subsequent convictions were upheld in state court. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. Held: Vacated and remanded. A blood draw is a search of the person. The Fourth Amendment guards against unreasonable searches and generally requires that a warrant first be obtained. However, the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement applies when the compelling need for official action renders a warrantless search reasonable. In drunk driving cases an exigency exists when (1) BAC evidence is dissipating and (2) some other factor creates pressing health, safety, or law enforcement needs which take priority over a warrant application. Both conditions are met when a drunk-driving suspect is unconscious because this creates a medical emergency requiring treatment and will usually involve the drawing of blood anyway. This could delay the application for a warrant which might distort the evidentiary value of a blood draw. There may be an unusual case where a defendant can show that his blood would not have been drawn if police had not been seeking BAC data, and that police could not have reasonably judged that a warrant application would interfere with other pressing duties. Because Mitchell did not have a chance to attempt to make this showing, the case was remanded for this purpose. [Editor’s Notes: (1) Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Breyer and Kavanaugh. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan. Justice Gorsuch filed a separate dissenting opinion. (2) The question presented in this case was: Whether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. Although the court discussed state implied consent laws, a plurality of the court rested its decision on the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.]

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: