Justia Summary

Mitchell was arrested for operating a vehicle while intoxicated after a preliminary breath test registered a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) triple Wisconsin’s legal limit for driving. Taken to a police station for a more reliable breath test using evidence-grade equipment, Mitchell was too lethargic for a breath test. Taken to a nearby hospital for a blood test, Mitchell was unconscious. His blood was drawn under a state law that presumes that a person incapable of withdrawing implied consent to BAC testing has not done so. Charged with violating drunk-driving laws, Mitchell moved to suppress the blood test results. The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the lawfulness of Mitchell’s blood test.

The Supreme Court vacated. A plurality concluded that when a driver is unconscious and cannot take a breath test, the exigent-circumstances doctrine generally permits a blood test without a warrant. BAC tests are Fourth Amendment searches. A warrant is normally required but the “exigent circumstances” exception allows warrantless searches to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence when there is a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.

The Court previously held that the fleeting nature of blood-alcohol evidence alone did not bring BAC testing within the exigency exception but that unconscious-driver cases involve a heightened urgency. When the driver’s stupor deprives officials of a reasonable opportunity to administer a breath test using evidence-grade equipment, a blood test is essential for achieving the goals of BAC testing. Highway safety is a compelling public interest; legal limits on a driver’s BAC serve that interest. Enforcing BAC limits requires testing that is accurate enough to stand up in court and prompt because alcohol dissipates from the bloodstream. When a drunk-driving suspect is unconscious, health, safety, or law enforcement needs can take priority over a warrant application. A driver’s unconsciousness is itself a medical emergency and a driver so drunk as to lose consciousness is likely to crash, giving officers other urgent tasks. On remand, Mitchell may attempt to show that his case was unusual and that police could not have reasonably judged that a warrant application would interfere with other pressing needs.

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