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Supreme Court allows blood test from unconscious DUI suspect

  • Birdsall Obear

Police do not have an unlimited right to use testing procedures on suspected drunk drivers. There are constitutional protections against invalid or unlawful tests. However, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a surprise ruling in June that allowed Sheboygan, Wisconsin police to administer a blood test to a driver while he was unconscious.

Sheboygan Police received a report that the suspect appeared to be very drunk and drove away in a van. They later located him wandering around a lake and appearing drunk. He exceeded Wisconsin's legal limit by three times in a field sobriety test and was taken to a police station for a blood test and breathalyzer. He lost consciousness at the station before the tests were administered. Police took him to a hospital and administered a blood test without obtaining a warrant. It resulted in a blood alcohol content of 0.222 percent around 90 minutes after his arrest.

The Court ruled in earlier cases that drawing blood was a significant intrusion into a motorist's privacy and that there were more reasonable methods to obtain evidence for suspected drunk driving. In 2013, the Court held that warrantless blood draws to measure BAC were unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. In this appeal, however, the Court upheld the warrantless blood test of the driver. It extended its interpretation of implied consent laws. Under implied consent, drivers agree to rough measurements of their blood alcohol concentration levels as a condition of having a driver's license. 

The Court also found that this case fell within the exigent-circumstances doctrine that allows police to obtain evidence without a warrant when it is urgent to act and securing a warrant is impracticable. Because the alcohol concentration in a person's blood will dissipate over time, according to the Court, police could use the exigent-circumstances doctrine in this case. 

This ruling may have a national impact on drunk driving enforcement. Twenty-seven other states have implied consent laws. Motorists still possess other constitutional protections, which govern police stops and testing. An attorney can help pursue these rights when a motorist is facing drunk driving charges.

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