In June 2019, a ruling handed down in the U.S. Supreme court governing warrantless chemical tests. The question surrounding the case of Mitchell v. Wisconsin was an intriguing one, which called for an examination of the Fourth Amendment, and the limits of implied consent laws.
In May 2013, the plaintiff was arrested in the state of Wisconsin for DUI. As the plaintiff was being escorted to the police station, he became unresponsive and sluggish. As a result, the officers took him to a hospital instead. At the hospital, the Plaintiff was incapacitated and did not comprehend the implied consent rules that were being read to him. Without a warrant, law enforcement ordered and drew blood from the suspect. The result from the blood draw showed a blood alcohol content level of .222.
The question addressed by the Supreme Court was whether a statute that authorizes a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provided an exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The state law in question here is the law of implied consent. Implied consent occurs when circumstances arise that would lead a reasonable person to believe that consent had been given even though the consent is not direct, express, or explicit. The form of implied consent at issue in Mitchell is one that exists in most states. The law permits law enforcement to test motorists for DUI should they enter the jurisdiction.
Mississippi has an implied consent law under which it administers chemical tests of DUI suspects. Under Section 63-11-5 of the Mississippi state statue, any person who operates a motor vehicle upon the public highways, public roads and in the streets of Mississippi is deemed to have given his consent to a chemical test or tests of his breath for the purpose of determining alcohol concentration. The dilemma in Mitchell case surrounds a question of whether implied consent was a viable exception to the warrant requirement in the Fourth Amendment.
Here, the Court held that given the exigent nature of the encounter (i.e., the incapacitated suspect), the blood test was valid without a warrant. According to the Court, although blood tests are subject to the Fourth Amendment there was an exception for this test was because of the possibility of imminent destruction of evidence. The Court went on to say that under the exigent circumstances exception, a warrantless search is allowed when “there is compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.”
Given the ruling in Mitchell, motorists should be aware of the reach given to law enforcement by way of the implied consent law. Even though a conscious motorist has the right to refuse testing, there are still consequences for refusal because of implied consent. According to this case, the Fourth Amendment permits law enforcement to draw blood where a suspect is not conscious enough to provide cognitive understanding.
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