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Drunk Driving And Fourth Amendment Rights


On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court made an important decision concerning Fourth Amendment protection from search and seizure when it comes to police officers testing blood alcohol content in the enforcement of drunk driving laws. Ultimately, the case posed the question of when the government can order the breathalyzer and/or blood draw test without a warrant; when a defendant is unconscious; after they have been taken to a hospital.

While the US Supreme Court has long held that blood and breath tests count as a search, determining when the searches are constitutionally “reasonable” has been a harder question to answer. Police must have a warrant exception to the warrant requirement in order to conduct these tests; the question is: when has a warrant exception been met?

Exceptions To The Warrant Requirement

The Supreme Court has dictated that a warrant exception exists when:

  • There are exigent circumstances, whereby evidence could be destroyed before the government can get a warrant;
  • The search was incident to arrest, i.e. the person was searched upon their arrest;
  • The consent exception, whereby states have implied consent laws that dictate that anyone arrested for drunk driving has implied consent; and
  • The general reasonableness exception, whereby a search and seizure is reasonable, without a warrant, when it advances important law enforcement interests, while not substantially infringing on privacy interests.

The Case

In the current case in front of the US Supreme Court, the individual suspected of drunk driving was unconscious, and therefore could not be asked if they would submit to the blood test. The question is thus whether a warrant is needed to draw blood on an unconscious person in order to test it for alcohol content.

Even implied consent laws, in theory, operate under the premise that someone who is unconscious should at least be given the chance to consent. Because the defendant was unconscious and could not do this, and the officer legally assumed consent and asked hospital personnel to take a blood draw. The Court ruled that this was legal under the Fourth Amendment because police officers are presumed to have probable cause to arrest someone for drunk driving and therefore order hospital personnel to conduct a test on an unconscious person. In making this finding, the Court relied on the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement because but alcohol content evidence was allegedly dissipating and law-enforcement has to prioritize public safety over a warrant application.

It is important to note that this does not mean that police can always do a blood draw on a person just because they are suspected of having committed a drunk driving offense, but rather, when police have probable cause to believe that they have committed a DWI offense, and they are unconscious such that they need to be taken to the hospital before police can conduct a breathalyzer test, they can almost always order a warrantless blood test to measure blood alcohol content without violating the Fourth Amendment.

Contact Our North Carolina DWI Attorneys

A number of people who have been arrested for drunk driving have had their civil rights violated in the process, which means that any evidence gathered against you cannot be used in court. Contact North Carolina DWI lawyer Rashad Hauter if you have any questions about what is at stake with your drunk driving arrest.



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