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Supreme Court Rules that Officers May Draw Your Blood While You’re Unconscious

Barket Epstein discusses a new Supreme Court ruling that allows officers to draw blood while you're unconscious in New York.

Does New York law allow officers to take a blood sample from an unconscious DUI suspect?

A divided Supreme Court recently issued an important ruling concerning DUI suspects in the case of Mitchell v. Wisconsin. The controversial case could have a significant impact on DUI suspects across the country as it conflicts with previous court rulings. At its core, the case rules on the practice of taking a blood sample from a DUI suspect who is unconscious or otherwise unable to provide his or her consent. By affirming that such a practice may be allowed, the case could open the door for reform in states across the country who currently require a warrant for blood draws. Our New York City DWI defense lawyers discuss this new case holding and what it might mean for New Yorkers below.

Mitchell v. Wisconsin 

In the case of Mitchell v. Wisconsin, Gerald Mitchell was arrested for driving under the influence. He initially underwent a field breathalyzer test where he tested three times the legal limit in the state of Wisconsin. Officers transported him to the station to undergo a more accurate breath test there, but he passed out on the way. Instead of taking him to the station, officers elected to drive him to the hospital. There, doctors drew his blood while he was unconscious and he tested well above the legal limit. Mitchell challenged his conviction, urging the warrantless blood draw was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court took up the case.

In its 5-4 holding, the justices looked at two central issues in finding that it is legal for officers to blood test an unconscious person without a warrant if he or she has been arrested for a DUI. First, the court addressed the matter of implied consent. Wisconsin, like New York and many other states, has an implied consent law that holds motorists consent to chemical and field sobriety testing to determine whether they are impaired as a condition to obtain their driver’s license. Should a driver refuse a test, their license can be suspended. The Supreme Court discussed implied consent laws but did not ultimately issue its ruling based on this factor.

Instead, the Supreme Court rested its decision on the exigent circumstances exception. Typically, the Fourth Amendment requires police officers to obtain a valid warrant before requiring a blood draw.  However, exceptions do exist, one of which is the exigent circumstances exception. Per the Supreme Court, should probable cause exist to suggest a suspect is intoxicated and the driver is unconscious, then officers can order a warrantless blood test without violating the Fourth Amendment because it is said to create an exigent circumstance.

Previously, Supreme Court law had allowed for exigent exceptions to the warrant requirement but did not find the mere passage of time enough to prove an exigency.  As such, many states no longer allowed for warrantless blood draws on unconscious suspects, without some special circumstances. Now, New York and other states may alter their laws to make it clear that officers have the power to order warrantless blood draws on unconscious DUI suspects. 

Posted in: DWI Defense