On June 27, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) answered yes.
This issue came before SCOTUS in the case of Mitchell v. Wisconsin, where police came across a visibly intoxicated Wisconsin driver, identified as Gerald Mitchell.
A preliminary breath test at the scene indicated Mitchell’s blood-alcohol content (“BAC”) was three times the legal limit (reading 0.24%). Because those results could not be used in court, police brought him to the station to administer more accurate tests. However, Mitchell’s condition continued to deteriorate on the way to the station and he became too lethargic even for a breath test. Therefore, police escorted him to the hospital.
On the way to the hospital, Mitchell passed out in the back of the police cruiser and had to be wheeled in. Shortly after, police ordered hospital staff to draw a blood sample. Police did not have a warrant. Mitchell remained unconscious at this time and the sample revealed a BAC of 0.222% (about ninety minutes after his arrest).
Mitchell and defense counsel moved to suppress the blood test on the ground that it violated his Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable searches” (because it was conducted without a warrant and he was unconscious). The Fourth Amendment reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
However, against Mitchell and defense counsel’s objections, the results were admitted into court and resulted in a conviction. Mitchell appealed his case all the way up to SCOTUS. On June 27, 2019, a divided Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment generally does not bar states from taking a blood sample from an unconscious drunk-driving suspect, even if they do not have a warrant (or consent).
What Are Rhode Island’s Laws For “Driving Under the Influence of Liquor or Drugs”?
In Rhode Island, you can be convicted for “driving under influence of liquor or drugs” under any of the following conditions:
- If you have a BAC of .08% or greater (.04% or more if operating a commercial vehicle);
- If you are “under the influence” of any liquor, drug, or controlled substance; or
- If you have any amount of illegal drugs in your blood.
Rhode Island’s prohibition against driving with a BAC of .08% or more is known as a “per se DUI”. What that means is that a person can be convicted of a per se offense if s/he has a BAC of .08% or more—regardless of actual impairment.
What Impact Could This Recent SCOTUS Decision Have on Me in Rhode Island?
SCOTUS decisions are binding on all federal courts and on state courts regarding issues of the Constitution and federal law. However, in this case, the SCOTUS justices were not unanimous, instead it was a plurality opinion. This means that the decision is not binding, but is persuasive. Therefore, many police departments and prosecutors will likely use this case to argue that they can take an unconscious driver’s blood sample if police have probable cause to believe s/he was driving under the influence of liquor or drugs in Rhode Island without violating the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights.
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