U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Warrantless Blood Draws in DWI Cases

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects people from “unreasonable searches and seizures” that are not supported by probable cause. It generally requires law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant from a judge before they may conduct a search, seize property, or make an arrest. Courts have identified numerous exceptions to this requirement, however. In New Jersey driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases, drivers give their implied consent to provide breath samples to police. A blood draw, however, is considered much more intrusive, and is not covered by the implied consent law. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued several rulings over the years on the question of whether police may order blood drawn from a DWI suspect without a warrant or the suspect’s consent. A ruling from June 2019, Mitchell v. Wisconsin, involved a warrantless blood draw on a suspect who was unconscious. The court vacated the conviction and remanded the case without a clear majority ruling, but five justices were inclined to support warrantless blood draws in certain situations.

If police obtain evidence in violation of someone’s Fourth Amendment rights, that person can ask a court to prevent the use of that evidence against them at trial. This is known as a motion to suppress. The state can offer various justifications for a warrantless search. The “exigent circumstances” exception has featured prominently in DWI cases involving warrantless blood draws. This exception allows police to conduct a search or seize property without a warrant when there is a significant risk of the loss or destruction of material evidence or contraband.

The Supreme Court took up the question of whether the exigent circumstances exception applies to warrantless blood draws in 2013, in Missouri v. McNeely. In a 5-4 ruling, the court found that the breakdown of alcohol in the human body over time is not, by itself, an “exigent circumstance” justifying a warrantless blood draw. It did not, however, foreclose all possibility of an exigent circumstance exception in the future.

The most important difference between Mitchell and McNeely was that, while the defendant in McNeely directly refused to consent to a blood draw, the defendant in Mitchell could not do so because he was unconscious after a car accident. According to the court’s opinion, police suspected that the defendant was intoxicated, and that he had caused the accident. He was reportedly “too lethargic for a breath test,” and he lost consciousness on the way to the hospital. Police had his blood drawn at the hospital, despite having neither a warrant nor consent.

The Supreme Court vacated the defendant’s conviction on the ground that he should have had an opportunity to challenge the search under Wisconsin law. The aspects of the ruling that are relevant to New Jersey involve the exigent circumstances exception. Four justices cited the defendant’s unconscious state to distinguish the case from McNeely. One justice stated in a concurring opinion, seemingly in conflict with McNeely, that the breakdown of alcohol over time was itself an exigent circumstance. The question of warrantless blood draws is not any clearer now than it was before this ruling.

Evan Levow is a DWI attorney in New Jersey who represents people facing alleged DWI charges in municipal court. He can advocate for your rights, guide you through the court process, and prepare the best defense for the particular facts of your case. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team, please contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717.

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