Can an Unconscious Driver Give Consent to have a Blood Alcohol Test?
The Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution, specifically the first 10 Amendments, mindful that the government could and may at some point in our country’s future subvert our individual rights, such as the right to be free of unreasonable governmental searches and seizures. Specifically, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Simply put, if a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a particular place, the government cannot search it unless, amongst other things, it has a warrant to do so or if it obtains voluntary consent to the search.
That was then. Mitchell v. Wisconsin is now.
The United States Supreme Court is currently deciding a case that will determine if police can withdraw blood from an unconscious suspected drunk driver without their express consent.
In May of 2013, Gerald Mitchell was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. While en route to the police station, Mitchell became lethargic and the officers instead took him to a hospital. There, the officers attempted to read Mitchell his rights as well as a statutorily mandated form regarding Wisconsin’s implied consent law. Mitchell, however, was already too close to unconsciousness to understand, if not unconscious already. That didn’t stop the officers. They ordered hospital workers to withdraw blood from Mitchell without his express consent. The blood test revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.22 percent, almost double the legal limit.
Implied consent laws, which exist in every state, declare that every driver, through merely having a government-issued driver’s license and using state-owned roadways, has impliedly agreed to take a blood-alcohol test if arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.
Mitchell was charged with a DUI (or OWI – operating while intoxicated – as it’s called in Wisconsin). He moved to suppress the results arguing that the officers did not have a warrant and that he did he did not give his express consent. Prosecutors argued that neither a warrant nor express consent were required because of the implied consent law. The trial court sided with the prosecutors and Mitchell was convicted.
Mitchell appealed and the court of appeals certified the case to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin on the issue of “whether the warrantless blood draw of an unconscious motorist pursuant to Wisconsin’s implied consent law…violates the Fourth Amendment.” The Supreme Court of Wisconsin accepted the certification and upheld Mitchell’s conviction. Earlier this year, however, the United States Supreme Court decided to take on the case.
It couldn’t come at better time either. State court stances on the issue have been all over the place.
Some states have struck down laws that allow prosecution of someone who refuses a blood alcohol test in violation of the implied consent law. Some states have held that warrantless, consentless searches are unconstitutional and, therefore, the evidence obtained by the search is inadmissible against the driver at a DUI trial. Others, like Wisconsin, have held that the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment don’t matter as long as implied consent laws allow law enforcement to search DUI suspects carte blanche.
Let’s take this step by step. The officers in Mitchell’s case do not need a warrant if Mitchell does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place that law enforcement is searching. We’re not talking about Mitchell’s garage. We’re not talking about his car. We’re not even talking about his home. We’re talking about the thing that we as humans consider to be the most private; our body. I’ll even take it a step further and say that we’re talking about a search of the contents of someone’s blood. You damn well better believe that we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our bodies and our blood.
Since Mitchell had a reasonable expectation of privacy, the Constitution requires that the officers either get a warrant or get Mitchell’s consent. They did not have a warrant nor did Mitchell give consent because he was, for all intents and purposes, unconscious. Yet, they searched and found what they were looking for.
Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, in allowing Mitchell’s blood and blood alcohol content to be used against him in a criminal case, has essentially said that unconscious drivers can give consent, and have already done so.
How? Because the state legislature has subjectively and in contradiction to the Constitution of the United States created a law that gives the government the right to search without a warrant or consent.
The Founding Fathers were right to be wary of the government, clearly. Let’s just hope that the United States Supreme Court decides Mitchell’s issue bearing in mind what the Founding Fathers had intended and what they wrote in the Constitution.