Warrantless Blood Draw on an Unconscious Driver

Earlier this year, California’s Second District Court of Appeal refused to overturn a Fontana woman’s convictions for killing six individuals in a 2014 drunken-driving accident when blood was taken from her while she was unconscious.

Olivia Culbreath was driving on the 60 Freeway in the wrong direction when she crashed into another vehicle. Culbreath herself was rendered unconscious in the wreck and six others were killed, including Culbreath’s sister. Law enforcement officers obtained a blood sample from Culbreath while she was unconscious and without first obtaining a warrant. This blood sample showed that Culbreath’s blood alcohol concentration to be nearly twice the legal limit of .08.

On appeal, Culbreath argued that the trial court impermissibly admitted the blood test results as they were obtained without a warrant. Caselaw shows the courts’ clear preference that law enforcement obtain warrants for any search, including a blood draw. However, as the Court of Appeal found, there are still situations where officers can draw a person’s blood without first obtaining a warrant.

Overview of the Fourth Amendment and DUI Blood Draws

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government agents from conducting “unreasonable” searches and seizures. This prohibition extends to state and local law enforcement officers as well, including local police. When searches are determined to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment, any evidence collected by law enforcement during the illegal search may be suppressed and kept from being used against the person from whom the evidence was illegally taken. In order for a search to be considered “reasonable,” law enforcement officers must generally either obtain a warrant by presenting evidence to a judge that amounts to probable, or an exception to the warrant requirement must apply.Drawing blood from a person suspected of DUI has long been recognized as a “search” that must comply with the Fourth Amendment in order to be valid. This means that officers must either obtain a warrant from a judge before drawing a DUI suspect’s blood or be able to establish that an exception applies that justifies foregoing a warrant. If they do not, the person from whom blood was taken and who is charged with DUI may be able to keep the results of the blood test from being used against them.

Exigent Circumstances is an Exception to the Warrant Requirement

An exception to the warrant requirement exists when law enforcement officers are presented with “exigent circumstances.” Simply put, “exigent circumstances” are situations in which officers do not have an adequate amount of time to obtain a warrant without seriously risking the destruction or loss of evidence. For example, officers who approach a home, who have probable cause to believe methamphetamine is inside, and who then hear the frantic, repeated flushing of a toilet inside may be able to justify a warrantless entry into the home to search for methamphetamine or evidence of methamphetamine usage. Officers may be successful in arguing that it was likely methamphetamine or other evidence would have been irretrievably lost if they did not immediately enter the home and search.

The same principles apply in the context of a DUI blood draw as the result of the case Schmerber v. California (384 U.S. 757), decided more than half a century ago. Officers who have probable cause to believe a person is driving under the influence and who believe there are exigent circumstances justifying a warrantless blood draw may proceed to do so. Officers are not left to their own devices, though, in determining whether exigent circumstances exist. For example, the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case Missouri v. McNeely (569 U.S. 141) stated that the fact that alcohol naturally metabolizes in a person’s body – and, as a result, their alcohol concentration reduces – over time is not, standing alone, a sufficient exigent circumstance that justifies a warrantless blood draw. In other words, officers need more than just a DUI arrest to claim that there are exigent circumstances to obtain blood without a warrant, and exigent circumstances needed to determined on a case-by-case basis.

Applicability to Culbreath’s Appeal

In her appeal, Culbreath argue that officers lacked exigent circumstances permitting them to draw her blood without a warrant. The Court of Appeal disagreed. The Court pointed not just to the serious nature of the accident but also to the fact that Culbreath was unconscious at the time her blood was drawn. Calling the situation facing law enforcement officers not an emergency but a “catastrophe,” the Court of Appeal had little difficulty in finding that officers were presented with an exigent circumstance upon responding to Culbreath’s wreck.

The Court of Appeal’s decision is also in accord with the recent U.S. Supreme Court case, Mitchell v. Wisconsin (588 U.S. _____, 139 S. Ct. 2525). In Mitchell, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court held that law enforcement may conduct a warrantless blood draw on a driver whose unconscious condition or stupor prevents officers from seeking a breath test. In such a situation, the Court reasoned, law enforcement is unlikely to have the time to obtain a warrant before the driver’s need for medical treatment takes away any opportunity to obtain an accurate sample of blood that can be tested. Subsequently, the unconscious nature of a DUI suspect became an important factor in determining whether exigent circumstances exist to justify a warrantless blood withdrawal.

Not a Blanket Authorization for Warrantless Blood Draws

The Mitchell decision does not mean that all warrantless blood draws on drivers suspected of DUI will be upheld. Even the U.S. Supreme Court left open the possibility that a warrantless blood draw may be unreasonable in certain situations, even if the driver is unconscious. A warrantless blood draw must still be premised on probable cause. And, while the Court did not carve out specific exceptions to its holding in Mitchell, the fact that the Court was willing to acknowledge that its holding may not apply in every circumstance should encourage drivers charged with DUI following a warrantless blood draw to seek legal assistance.

Warrantless blood draws that are conducted without probable cause to believe a driver is driving under the influence, or those performed where law enforcement officers could have easily obtained a warrant, may be successfully suppressed. Deciding to file a motion to suppress and filing such a motion in a timely manner may both be difficult for individuals without legal training. An experienced DUI defense lawyer in California can assist drivers facing DUI charges in determining whether a motion to suppress blood or breath test results should be filed in their cases.

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