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Mitchell v. Wisconsin

United States Supreme Court

June 27, 2019

GERALD P. MITCHELL, PETITIONER
v.
WISCONSIN

          Argued April 23, 2019

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF WISCONSIN

         Petitioner Gerald Mitchell was arrested for operating a vehicle while

intoxicated after a preliminary breath test registered a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that was triple Wisconsin's legal limit for driving. As is standard practice, the arresting officer drove Mitchell to a police station for a more reliable breath test using evidence-grade equipment. By the time Mitchell reached the station, he was too lethargic for a breath test, so the officer drove him to a nearby hospital for a blood test. Mitchell was unconscious by the time he arrived at the hospital, but his blood was drawn anyway under a state law that presumes that a person incapable of withdrawing implied consent to BAC testing has not done so. The blood analysis showed Mitchell's BAC to be above the legal limit, and he was charged with violating two drunk-driving laws. Mitchell moved to suppress the results of the blood test on the ground that it violated his Fourth Amendment right against "unreasonable searches" because it was conducted without a warrant. The trial court denied the motion, and Mitchell was convicted. On certification from the intermediate appellate court, the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the lawfulness of Mitchell's blood test.

         Held: The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded.

2018 WI 84, 383 Wis.2d 192, 914 N.W.2d 151');">914 N.W.2d 151, vacated and remanded. Justice Alito, joined by The Chief Justice, Justice Breyer, and JUSTICE KAVANAUGH, concluded that when a driver is unconscious and cannot be given a breath test, the exigent-circumstances doctrine generally permits a blood test without a warrant. Pp. 5-17.
(a) BAC tests are Fourth Amendment searches. See Birchfield v. North Dakota, 579 U.S.__, __. A warrant is normally required for a lawful search, but there are well-defined exceptions to this rule, including the "exigent circumstances" exception, which allows warrant- less searches "to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence." Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141, 149. In McNeely, this Court held that the fleeting nature of blood-alcohol evidence alone was not enough to bring BAC testing within the exigency exception. Id., at 156. But in Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757, the dissipation of BAC did justify a blood test of a drunk driver whose accident gave police other pressing duties, for then the further delay caused by a warrant application would indeed have threatened the destruction of evidence. Like Schmerber, unconscious-driver cases will involve a heightened degree of urgency for several reasons. And when the driver's stupor or unconsciousness deprives officials of a reasonable opportunity to administer a breath test using evidence-grade equipment, a blood test will be essential for achieving the goals of BAC testing. Pp. 5-7.
(b) Under the exigent circumstances exception, a warrantless search is allowed when" 'there is compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.'" McNeely, 569 U.S., at 149. Pp. 7- 16.
(1)There is clearly a "compelling need" for a blood test of drunk-driving suspects whose condition deprives officials of a reasonable opportunity to conduct a breath test. First, highway safety is a vital public interest-a "compelling" and "paramount" interest, Mackey v. Montrym, 443 U.S. 1, 17-18. Second, when it comes to promoting that interest, federal and state lawmakers have long been convinced that legal limits on a driver's BAC make a big difference. And there is good reason to think that such laws have worked. Birchfield, 579 U.S.__, at. Third, enforcing BAC limits obviously requires a test that is accurate enough to stand up in court. Id.__, at. And such testing must be prompt because it is "a biological certainty" that "[a]lcohol dissipates from the bloodstream," "literally disappearing by the minute." McNeely, 569 U.S., at 169 (ROBERTS, C. J., concurring). Finally, when a breath test is unavailable to promote the interests served by legal BAC limits, "a blood draw becomes necessary." Id., at 170. Pp. 9-12.
(2) Schmerber demonstrates that an exigency exists when (1) BAC evidence is dissipating and (2) some other factor creates pressing health, safety, or law enforcement needs that would take priority over a warrant application. Because both conditions are met when a drunk-driving suspect is unconscious, Schmerber controls. A driver's unconsciousness does not just create pressing needs; it is itself a medical emergency. In such a case, as in Schmerber, an officer could "reasonably have believed that he was confronted with an emergency." 384 U.S., at 771. And in many unconscious-driver cases, the exigency will be especially acute. A driver so drunk as to lose con- sciousness is quite likely to crash, giving officers a slew of urgent tasks beyond that of securing medical care for the suspect-tasks that would require them to put off applying for a warrant. The time needed to secure a warrant may have shrunk over the years, but it has not disappeared; and forcing police to put off other urgent tasks for even a relatively short period of time may have terrible collateral costs. Pp. 12-16.
(c) On remand, Mitchell may attempt to show that his was an unusual case, in which his blood would not have been drawn had police not been seeking BAC information and police could not have reasonably judged that a warrant application would interfere with other pressing needs or duties. Pp. 16-17.

         JUSTICE THOMAS would apply a per se rule, under which the natural metabolization of alcohol in the blood stream "creates an exigency once police have probable cause to believe the driver is drunk," regardless of whether the driver is conscious. Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141, 178 (Thomas, J., dissenting). Pp. 1-4.

          Alito, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and BREYER and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. So-TOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GlNSBURG and KAGAN, JJ., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

          JUSTICE Alito announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice Breyer, and Justice Kavanaugh join.

          OPINION

          ALITO JUSTICE.

         In this case, we return to a topic that we have addressed twice in recent years: the circumstances under which a police officer may administer a warrantless blood alcohol concentration (BAC) test to a motorist who appears to have been driving under the influence of alcohol. We have previously addressed what officers may do in two broad categories of cases. First, an officer may conduct a BAC test if the facts of a particular case bring it within the exigent-circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment's general requirement of a warrant. Second, if an officer has probable cause to arrest a motorist for drunk driving, the officer may conduct a breath test (but not a blood test) under the rule allowing warrantless searches of a person incident to arrest.

         Today, we consider what police officers may do in a narrow but important category of cases: those in which the driver is unconscious and therefore cannot be given a breath test. In such cases, we hold, the exigent-circumstances rule almost always permits a blood test without a warrant. When a breath test is impossible, enforcement of the drunk-driving laws depends upon the administration of a blood test. And when a police officer encounters an unconscious driver, it is very likely that the driver would be taken to an emergency room and that his blood would be drawn for diagnostic purposes even if the police were not seeking BAC information. In addition, police officers most frequently come upon unconscious drivers when they report to the scene of an accident, and under those circumstances, the officers' many responsibilities-such as attending to other injured drivers or passengers and preventing further accidents-may be incompatible with the procedures that would be required to obtain a warrant. Thus, when a driver is unconscious, the general rule is that a warrant is not needed.

         I

         A

         In Birchfield v. North Dakota, 579 U.S.__(2016), we recounted the country's efforts over the years to address the terrible problem of drunk driving. Today, "all States have laws that prohibit motorists from driving with a [BAC] that exceeds a specified level." Id., at__(slip op., at 2). And to help enforce BAC limits, every State has passed what are popularly called implied-consent laws. Ibid. As "a condition of the privilege of" using the public roads, these laws require that drivers submit to BAC testing "when there is sufficient reason to believe they are violating the State's drunk-driving laws." Id., at__, __(slip op., at 2, 6).

         Wisconsin's implied-consent law is much like those of the other 49 States and the District of Columbia. It deems drivers to have consented to breath or blood tests if an officer has reason to believe they have committed one of several drug- or alcohol-related offenses.[1] See Wis.Stat. §§343.305(2), (3). Officers seeking to conduct a BAC test must read aloud a statement declaring their intent to administer the test and advising drivers of their options and the implications of their choice. §343.305(4). If a driver's BAC level proves too high, his license will be suspended; but if he refuses testing, his license will be revoked and his refusal may be used against him in court. See ibid. No test will be administered if a driver refuses- or, as the State would put it, "withdraws" his statutorily presumed consent. But "[a] person who is unconscious or otherwise not capable of withdrawing consent is presumed not to have" withdrawn it. §343.305(3)(b). See also §§343.305(3)(ar)1-2. More than half the States have provisions like this one regarding unconscious drivers.

         B

         The sequence of events that gave rise to this case began when Officer Alexander Jaeger of the Sheboygan Police Department received a report that petitioner Gerald Mitchell, appearing to be very drunk, had climbed into a van and driven off. Jaeger soon found Mitchell wandering near a lake. Stumbling and slurring his words, Mitchell could hardly stand without the support of two officers. Jaeger judged a field sobriety test hopeless, if not dangerous, and gave Mitchell a preliminary breath test. It registered a BAC level of 0.24%, triple the legal limit for driving in Wisconsin. Jaeger arrested Mitchell for operating a vehicle while intoxicated and, as is standard practice, drove him to a police station for a more reliable breath test using better equipment.

         On the way, Mitchell's condition continued to deteriorate-so much so that by the time the squad car had reached the station, he was too lethargic even for a breath test. Jaeger therefore drove Mitchell to a nearby hospital for a blood test; Mitchell lost consciousness on the ride over and had to be wheeled in. Even so, Jaeger read aloud to a slumped Mitchell the standard statement giving drivers a chance to refuse BAC testing. Hearing no response, Jaeger asked hospital staff to draw a blood sample. Mitchell remained unconscious while the sample was taken, and analysis of his blood showed that his BAC, about 90 minutes after his arrest, was 0.222%.

         Mitchell was charged with violating two related drunk-driving provisions. See §§346.63(1)(a), (b). He moved to suppress the results of the blood test on the ground that it violated his Fourth Amendment right against "unreasonable searches" because it was conducted without a warrant. Wisconsin chose to rest its response on the notion that its implied-consent law (together with Mitchell's free choice to drive on its highways) rendered the blood test a consensual one, thus curing any Fourth Amendment problem. In the end, the trial court denied Mitchell's motion to suppress, and a jury found him guilty of the charged offenses. The intermediate appellate court certified two questions to the Wisconsin Supreme Court: first, whether compliance with the State's implied-consent law was sufficient to show that Mitchell's test was consistent with the Fourth Amendment and, second, whether a warrantless blood draw from an unconscious person violates the Fourth Amendment. See 2018 WI 84, ¶I5, 383 Wis.2d 192, 202-203, 914 N.W.2d 151');">914 N.W.2d 151, 155-156 (2018). The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed Mitchell's convictions, and we granted certiorari, 586 U.S.__(2019), to decide "[w]hether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement," Pet. for Cert. ii.

         II

         In considering Wisconsin's implied-consent law, we do not write on a blank slate. "Our prior opinions have referred approvingly to the general concept of implied-consent laws that impose civil penalties and evidentiary consequences on motorists who refuse to comply." Birch-field, 579 U.S., at__(slip op., at 36). But our decisions have not rested on the idea that these laws do what their popular name might seem to suggest-that is, create actual consent to all the searches they authorize. Instead, we have based our decisions on the precedent regarding the specific constitutional claims in each case, while keeping in mind the wider regulatory scheme developed over the years to combat drunk driving. That scheme is centered on legally specified BAC limits for drivers-limits enforced by the BAC tests promoted by implied-consent laws.

         Over the last 50 years, we have approved many of the defining elements of this scheme. We have held that forcing drunk-driving suspects to undergo a blood test does not violate their constitutional right against self-incrimination. See Schmerberv. California, 384 U.S. 757, 765 (1966). Nor does using their refusal against them in court. See South Dakota v. Neville, 459 U.S. 553, 563 (1983). And punishing that refusal with automatic license revocation does not violate drivers' due process rights if they have been arrested upon probable cause, Mackey v. Montrym, 443 U.S. 1 (1979); on the contrary, this kind of summary penalty is "unquestionably legitimate." Neville, supra, at 560.

         These cases generally concerned the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, but motorists charged with drunk driving have also invoked the Fourth Amendment's ban on "unreasonable searches" since BAC tests are "searches." See Birchfield, 579 U.S., at__(slip op., at 14). Though our precedent normally requires a warrant for a lawful search, there are well-defined exceptions to this rule. In Birchfield, we applied precedent on the "search-incident-to-arrest" exception to BAC testing of conscious drunk-driving suspects. We held that their drunk-driving arrests, taken alone, justify warrantless breath tests but not blood tests, since breath tests are less intrusive, just as informative, and (in the case of conscious suspects) readily available. Id., at__(slip op., at 35).

         We have also reviewed BAC tests under the "exigent circumstances" exception-which, as noted, allows warrantless searches "to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence." Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141, 149 (2013). In McNeely, we were asked if this exception covers BAC testing of drunk-driving suspects in light of the fact that blood-alcohol evidence is always dissipating due to "natural metabolic processes." Id., at 152. We answered that the fleeting quality of BAC evidence alone is not enough. Id., at 156. But in Schmerber it did justify a blood test of a drunk driver who had gotten into a car accident that gave police other pressing duties, for then the "further delay" caused by a warrant application really "would have threatened the destruction of evidence." McNeely, supra, at 152 (emphasis added).

         Like Schmerber, this case sits much higher than McNeely on the exigency spectrum. McNeely was about the minimum degree of urgency common to all drunk-driving cases. In Schmerber, a car accident heightened that urgency. And here Mitchell's medical condition did just the same.

         Mitchell's stupor and eventual unconsciousness also deprived officials of a reasonable opportunity to administer a breath test. To be sure, Officer Jaeger managed to conduct "a preliminary breath test" using a portable machine when he first encountered Mitchell at the lake. App. to Pet. for Cert. 60a. But he had no reasonable opportunity to give Mitchell a breath test using "evidence-grade breath testing machinery." Birchfield, 579 U.S., at __(SOTOMAYOR, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part) (slip op., at 10). As a result, it was reasonable for Jaeger to seek a better breath test at the station; he acted with reasonable dispatch to procure one; and when Mitchell's condition got in the way, it was reasonable for Jaeger to pursue a blood test. As JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR explained in her partial dissent in Birchfield:

"There is a common misconception that breath tests are conducted roadside, immediately after a driver is arrested. While some preliminary testing is conducted roadside, reliability concerns with roadside tests confine their use in most circumstances to establishing probable cause for an arrest. . . . The standard evidentiary breath test is conducted after a motorist is arrested and transported to a police station, governmental building, or mobile testing facility where officers can access reliable, evidence-grade breath testing machinery." Id., at__(slip op., at 10).

         Because the "standard evidentiary breath test is conducted after a motorist is arrested and transported to a police station" or another appropriate facility, ibid., the important question here is what officers may do when a driver's unconsciousness (or stupor) eliminates any reasonable opportunity for that kind of breath test.

         III

         The Fourth Amendment guards the "right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable searches" and provides that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." A blood draw is a search of the person, so we must determine if its administration here without a warrant was reasonable. See Birchfield, 579 U.S. at__(slip op., at 14). Though we have held that a warrant is normally required, we have also "made it clear that there are exceptions to the warrant requirement." Illinois v. McArthur, 531 U.S. 326, 330 (2001). And under the exception for exigent circumstances, a warrantless search is allowed when "'there is compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.'" McNeely, supra, at 149 (quoting Michigan v. Tyler, 436 U.S. 499, 509 (1978)). In McNeely, we considered how the exigent-circumstances exception applies to the broad category of cases in which a police officer has probable cause to believe that a motorist was driving under the influence of alcohol, and we do not revisit that question. Nor do we settle whether the exigent-circumstances exception covers the specific facts of this case.[2] Instead, we address how the exception bears on the category of cases encompassed by the question on which we granted certiorari-those involving unconscious drivers.[3] In those cases, the need for a blood test is compelling, and an officer's duty to attend to more pressing needs may leave no time to seek a warrant.

         A

         The importance of the needs served by BAC testing is hard to overstate. The bottom line is that BAC tests are needed for enforcing laws that save lives. The specifics, in short, are these: Highway safety is critical; it is served by laws that criminalize driving with a certain BAC level; and enforcing these legal BAC limits requires efficient testing to obtain BAC evidence, which naturally dissipates. So BAC tests are crucial links in a chain on which vital interests hang. And when a breath test is unavailable to advance those aims, a blood test becomes essential. Here we add a word about each of these points.

         First, highway safety is a vital public interest. For decades, we have strained our vocal chords to give adequate expression to the stakes. We have called highway safety a "compelling interest," Mackey, 443 U.S., at 19; we have called it "paramount," id., at 17. Twice we have referred to the effects of irresponsible driving as "slaughter" comparable to the ravages of war. Breithaupt v. Abram, 352 U.S. 432, 439 (1957); Perez v. Campbell, 402 U.S. 637, 657, 672 (1971) (Blackmun, J., concurring in result in part and dissenting in part). We have spoken of "carnage," Neville, 459 U.S., at 558-559, and even "frightful carnage," Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395, 401 (1971) (Blackmun, J., concurring). The frequency of preventable collisions, we have said, is "tragic," Neville, supra, at 558, and "astounding," Breithaupt, supra, at 439. And behind this fervent language lie chilling figures, all captured in the fact that from 1982 to 2016, alcohol-related accidents took roughly 10, 000 to 20, 000 lives in this Nation every single year. See National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (NHTSA), Traffic Safety Facts 2016, p. 40 (May 2018). In the best years, that would add up to more than one fatality per hour.

         Second, when it comes to fighting these harms and promoting highway safety, federal and state lawmakers have long been convinced that specified BAC limits make a big difference. States resorted to these limits when earlier laws that included no "statistical definition of intoxication" proved ineffectual or hard to enforce. See Birchfield, 579 U.S., at__-__(slip op., at 2-3). The maximum permissible BAC, initially set at 0.15%, was first lowered to 0.10% and then to 0.08%. Id., at__, __-__(slip op., at 3, 6-7). Congress encouraged this process by conditioning the award of federal highway funds on the establishment of a BAC limit of 0.08%, see 23 U.S.C. § 163(a); 23 CFR §1225.1 (2012), and every State has adopted this limit.[4] Not only that, many States, including Wisconsin, have passed laws imposing increased penalties for recidivists or for drivers with a BAC level that exceeds a higher threshold. See Wis.Stat. §346.65(2)(am); Birch-field, 579 U.S., at__(slip op., at 7).

         There is good reason to think this strategy has worked. As we noted in Birchfield, these tougher measures corresponded with a dramatic drop in highway deaths and injuries: From the mid-1970's to the mid-1980's, "the number of annual fatalities averaged 25, 000; by 2014 ..., the number had fallen to below 10, 000." Id., at__(slip op., at 6).

         Third, enforcing BAC limits obviously requires a test that is accurate enough to stand up in court, id., at__-__(slip op., at 3-5); see also McNeely, 569 U.S., at 159-160 (plurality opinion). And we have recognized that "[e]xtraction of blood samples for testing is a highly effective means of" measuring "the influence of alcohol." Schmerber, 384 U.S., at 771.

         Enforcement of BAC limits also requires prompt testing because it is "a biological certainty" that "[a]lcohol dissipates from the bloodstream at a rate of 0.01 percent to 0.025 percent per hour. . . . Evidence is literally disappearing by the minute." McNeely, 569 U.S., at 169 (opinion of ROBERTS, C. J.). As noted, the ephemeral nature of BAC was "essential to our holding in Schmerber," which itself allowed a warrantless blood test for BAC. Id., at 152 (opinion of the Court). And even when we later held that the exigent-circumstances exception would not permit a warrantless blood draw in every drunk-driving case, we acknowledged that delays in BAC testing can "raise questions about. . . accuracy." Id., at 156.

         It is no wonder, then, that the implied-consent laws that incentivize prompt BAC testing have been with us for 65 years and now exist in all 50 States. Birchfield, supra, at__(slip op., at 6). These laws and the BAC tests they require are tightly ...


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