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In a recent blog post, we discussed the process of figuring out just what, exactly, the Supreme Court decided in State v. Mitchell. That case, as we detailed long ago, made it to the Supreme Court as a fascinating question in implied consent law. The Court, however, turned it into a Fourth Amendment case.
Both this change in topics and the outcome of the case make State v. Mitchell one of the most disturbing operating under the influence (OUI) cases on the law books.
While the ruling ended with the Justices divided 4-1-4, the outcome of State v. Mitchell was a harsh ruling for OUI suspects everywhere: Police will likely not need to get a warrant before they request a blood sample from an OUI suspect who is unconscious, and as such, unable to consent.
The decision strikes a blow against the privacy expectations that OUI suspects should have been able to depend upon: By saying that police don’t need a warrant to take a blood sample when the suspect is unconscious cannot consent, the Supreme Court brushed aside by far the strongest expectation of privacy that drivers have.
In addition, in the future, we can expect the police to be far more aggressive in their OUI investigations. Now that they know the requirement to obtain a warrant before demanding a blood draw is weakened, we can expect them to use this invasive search far more often than before.
The case State v. Mitchell came from an incident in Wisconsin. Police had received a tip about a drunk driver and picked up an intoxicated Mr. Mitchell on a beach. By the time they got back to the police station for a more accurate breath test, Mr. Mitchell had passed out. The police couldn’t wake him up to get a breath sample, so they brought him to the hospital to take a blood test and get his blood alcohol content (BAC).
The BAC results from that blood test were damaging enough that Mr. Mitchell was convicted for OUI.
The police claimed that they could do this under Wisconsin’s implied consent law. When Mr. Mitchell appealed his case, prosecutors expressly said that they were relying on Wisconsin’s implied consent law. They even went out of their way to insist that they were not justifying the blood draw on exigent circumstances, one of the Fourth Amendment’s exceptions to the warrant requirement.
Despite this insistence, that’s exactly what the Supreme Court’s decision hung its hat on. Even though State v. Mitchell had been argued as an implied consent case all the way up the appeals system, the Supreme Court decided that it was actually a Fourth Amendment case that required a decision about when exigent or emergency circumstances allowed police to gather evidence without a warrant.
Changes like these are rare and extremely problematic. Because the case was treated as an implied consent case in every courtroom it passed through, there was little discussion or evidence about its Fourth Amendment implications. The Supreme Court’s decision to make such a broad decision about when police can perform a blood draw on OUI suspects becomes even more disturbing, given this lack of discussion earlier in the process.
The criminal defense and OUI defense lawyers at Maine Criminal Defense Group serve those accused of drunk or drugged driving in Portland, Saco, Biddeford, and surrounding areas. Contact our online or call them at (207) 571-8146.
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