A major case involving implied consent laws and the law of operating under the influence (OUI) recently reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's opinion was released on June 27 and immediately presented an uncommon challenge to the legal community: Determining what, if anything, the Supreme Court actually said.
Supreme Court Hears OUI Case
We've blogged before about the case that the Supreme Court heard – State v. Mitchell.
In this case, a driver was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, but he passed out before an accurate breath test could be performed. The police took him to the hospital and requested a blood test without his consent and without a warrant.
Based on the results of the blood test, the driver was charged with OUI. He moved to suppress the evidence, claiming it violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The court decisions on that argument led to appeals that got all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Supreme Court Splits 4-1-4
The Supreme Court accepted the case to decide whether it violated the Fourth Amendment to conduct a warrantless blood test on an unconscious driver. However, the nine justices failed to reach a majority opinion. Instead, they fell into a 4-1-4 split.
Four justices – Alito, Roberts, Breyer, and Kavanaugh – joined one opinion that said one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement, the one allowing a search for evidence under exigent circumstances, “almost always permits a blood test without a warrant.” Those four said that, barring specific exceptions, a warrantless blood test on an unconscious OUI suspect was fine. Therefore, the damning BAC evidence did not violate the suspect's rights. They wanted to send the case back to court so the suspect could have a chance to argue that his case fell into one of those specific exceptions to the rule.
One justice – Justice Thomas – wrote his own opinion. He said that a warrantless blood test on any OUI suspect is always fine because of the exigency exception to the warrant requirement. He said the conviction should stand.
Finally, four justices – Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Gorsuch – all disagreed, but for different reasons.
All but Gorsuch said that the conviction should be overturned. These three justices said that police should still get a warrant and pointed out that even the prosecutor had conceded there was no exigent circumstance requiring immediate police action.
Gorsuch pointed out that the Court had agreed to hear the case's implied consent problem but instead ruled on an entirely different question.
What Did the Court Actually Decide?
In cases like these, lawyers have to split up the opinion to see where at least five justices agreed on something. In Mitchell, unfortunately, that point of agreement is that the exigent circumstances exception “almost always” allows blood tests without a warrant. Four justices agreed on that point. Justice Thomas provided the fifth, though he would have gone much, much further.