Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.


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E.g., 06/29/2024
E.g., 06/29/2024

The petitioner appealed from his impaired driving conviction on the basis that the State violated the Fourth Amendment by withdrawing his blood while he was unconscious without a warrant following his arrest for impaired driving. A Wisconsin state statute permits such blood draws. The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the petitioner’s convictions, though no single opinion from that court commanded a majority, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide “[w]hether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.”  

Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Breyer and Justice Kavanaugh announced the judgment of the court and wrote the plurality opinion. The plurality noted at the outset that the Court’s opinions approving the general concept of implied consent laws did not rest on the idea that such laws create actual consent to the searches they authorize, but instead approved defining elements of such statutory schemes after evaluating constitutional claims in light of laws developed over the years to combat drunk driving. The plurality noted that the Court had previously determined that an officer may withdraw blood from an impaired driving suspect without a warrant if the facts of a particular case establish exigent circumstances. Missouri v.McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013); Schmerber v. California, 384 U. S. 757, 765 (1966). While the natural dissipation of alcohol is insufficient by itself to create per se exigency in impaired driving cases, exigent circumstances may exist when that natural metabolic process is combined with other pressing police duties (such as the need to address issues resulting from a car accident) such that the further delay necessitated by a warrant application risks the destruction of evidence. The plurality reasoned that in impaired driving cases involving unconscious drivers, the need for a blood test is compelling and the officer’s duty to attend to more pressing needs involving health or safety (such as the need to transport an unconscious suspect to a hospital for treatment) may leave the officer no time to obtain a warrant. Thus, the plurality determined that when an officer has probable cause to believe a person has committed an impaired driving offense and the person’s unconsciousness or stupor requires him to be taken to the hospital before a breath test may be performed, the State may almost always order a warrantless blood test to measure the driver’s blood alcohol concentration without offending the Fourth Amendment. The plurality did not rule out that in an unusual case, a defendant could show that his or her blood would not have been withdrawn had the State not sought blood alcohol concentration information and that a warrant application would not have interfered with other pressing needs or duties. The plurality remanded the case because the petitioner had no opportunity to make such a showing.

Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment only, writing separately to advocate for overruling Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013), in favor of a rule that the dissipation of alcohol creates an exigency in every impaired driving case that excuses the need for a warrant. 

Justice Sotomayer, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, dissented, reasoning that the Court already had established that there is no categorical exigency exception for blood draws in impaired driving cases, although exigent circumstances might justify a warrantless blood draw on the facts of a particular case. The dissent noted that in light of that precedent, Wisconsin’s primary argument was always that the petitioner consented to the blood draw through the State’s implied-consent law. Certiorari review was granted on the issue of whether this law provided an exception to the warrant requirement. The dissent criticized the plurality for resting its analysis on the issue of exigency, an issue it said Wisconsin had affirmatively waived.

Justice Gorsuch dissented by separate opinion, arguing that the Court had declined to answer the question presented, instead upholding Wisconsin’s implied consent law on an entirely different ground, namely the exigent circumstances doctrine. 

In this Buncombe County case, defendant appealed his convictions for driving while impaired and reckless driving, arguing (1) there was insufficient evidence that he was driving the vehicle, and (2) error in denying his motion to suppress the results of a warrantless blood draw. The Court of Appeals majority found no error. 

In November of 2014, a trooper responded to a single vehicle accident and found a heavily damaged pickup truck against a steel fence off the side of the road. Defendant was inside the vehicle, unconscious and seriously injured. The trooper noticed the smell of alcohol and open beer cans in the vehicle. Defendant was the owner of the wrecked vehicle and there were no other people at the scene of the accident. At the hospital, the trooper ordered a warrantless blood draw. The results of this blood draw were that defendant was intoxicated, and these results were admitted at trial. The jury subsequently convicted defendant of drunk driving solely on the grounds that his blood alcohol level was above the legal limit under G.S. 20-138.1(a)(2).  

The Court of Appeals first considered (1), noting that admitting opinion testimony from the trooper that defendant was operating the vehicle was improper, as the trooper did not observe defendant actually drive the pickup truck. The court explained this was not reversible error because the trial court provided a curative instruction to the jury, directing them to disregard the trooper’s testimony that defendant was the driver. The court found that sufficient evidence beyond the trooper’s testimony supported finding that defendant was the driver, justifying denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss. 

Considering (2), the court explained that exigent circumstances supporting a warrantless blood draw almost always exist where a defendant is unconscious and being taken to a hospital. In Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 139 S. Ct. 2525 (2019), the Supreme Court’s plurality held that normally law enforcement may order a warrantless blood draw when the suspect is unconscious and taken to a hospital for treatment, but that the defendant must have an opportunity to argue the lack of exigency and show an “unusual case” that would require a warrant. Slip Op. at 8. Here, the court found that defendant had such an opportunity, and found no error in admitting the results of the blood draw. 

Judge Tyson concurred in the judgment on (1), but dissented by separate opinion regarding (2), disagreeing with the majority’s application of Mitchell and the admission of the results obtained through the warrantless blood draw. 

(1) The DMV’s findings support its conclusion that the officer had reasonable grounds to believe that Farrell was driving while impaired. During a traffic stop Farrell refused the officer’s request to take a breath test after being informed of his implied consent rights and the consequences of refusing to comply. Officers obtained his blood sample, revealing a blood alcohol level of .18. Because Farrell refused to submit to a breath test upon request, the DMV revoked his driving privileges. The Court of Appeals found that “DMV’s findings readily support its conclusion.” Among other things, Farrell had glassy, bloodshot eyes and slightly slurred speech; during the stop Farrell used enough mouthwash to create a strong odor detectable by the officer from outside car; and Farrell lied to the officer about using the mouthwash. The court held: “From these facts, a reasonable officer could conclude that Farrell was impaired and had attempted to conceal the alcohol on his breath by using mouthwash and then lying about having done so.” (2) Over a dissent, the court rejected Farrell’s argument that the State’s dismissal of his DWI charge barred the DMV from pursuing a drivers license revocation under the implied consent laws. This dismissal may have been based on a Fourth Amendment issue. The majority determined that even if Farrell’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated, the exclusionary rule would not apply to the DMV hearing. The dissent argued that the exclusionary rule should apply. A third judge wrote separately, finding that it was not necessary to reach the exclusionary rule issue.

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