Can Police Draw Blood from an Unconscious Driver Without a Warrant?

Alex Wubbels, a nurse at University Hospital in Salt Lake City, settled on a $500,000 payment after being arrested for refusing to allow a police officer to draw blood from an unconscious patient.

Detective Jeff Payne came to the facility to draw blood from the patient after a fiery crash earlier that day. Wubbels pointed out that the individual was not under arrest, so there was no way to obtain consent for the procedure.

Charges were never filed against Wubbels. She was handcuffed, placed in a police car for about 20 minutes, and then released.

All 50 states have laws which assume that drivers automatically give their consent to blood or breath tests by being behind the wheel. The Supreme Court ruled on the matter of an unconscious blood draw in June 2019.

On a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled that police officers do not generally need a court-issued warrant to draw blood from an unconscious criminal suspect. This ruling reverses the findings from Birchfield v North Dakota in 2016 where law enforcement could conduct a warrantless breath test, but not a blood test, from a suspected drunk driver.

How Is a Warrantless Blood Draw Permitted?

Implied consent laws state that you agree to submit to chemical tests that include bodily fluids to determine drug or alcohol content. You have the option to not consent to this requirement by taking public transportation, an Uber, or using a service like Waymo One.

If a law enforcement officer asks you to take such a test as a driver, then you must submit.

The implied consent means that even if you are unconscious, your status as a criminal suspect gives police the permission they need to draw blood.

Implied consent laws also mean that you must show proof of insurance and your driver’s license if asked. If you are conscious, then a field sobriety test is mandatory as well.

What Happens If I Refuse to Participate?

If you are conscious, then you do have the option to politely refuse to participate in any of the activities covered by the implied consent laws. That choice brings consequences with it. Refusal almost always results in an arrest for suspected intoxication when probable cause exists.

Some jurisdictions consider the refusal to allow a blood draw to be an admission of guilt. This outcome could become evidence against you during a trial. The penalties for refusal are sometimes more severe than if you fail the test in the first place.

It may be a good idea to review Arizona’s current implied consent laws to understand what could happen.

There are some exceptions to the laws for some unconscious drivers, but in nearly all cases, the Fourth Amendment protections do not apply with the current ruling.

Whether you agree or disagree with the ruling, there is one point of common ground. The easiest way to not worry about this issue is not to drink alcohol or take drugs before getting behind the wheel in the first place.