Four years after a plurality of the United States Supreme Court in Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 588 U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 2525 (2019), announced a State-favorable exigency rule for withdrawing blood from a suspected impaired driver who is unconscious, the North Carolina Court of Appeals in State v. Burris, COA22-408, ___ N.C. App. ___ (July 5, 2023), has applied the rule for the first time. This post will review the holding in Mitchell and the Court of Appeals’ analysis in Burris and will conclude with a summary of the Fourth Amendment limitations on implied consent testing.
When a person is convicted of driving while impaired under G.S. 20-138.1, the person’s license is revoked for one year. G.S. 20-17(a)(2); G.S. 20-19(c1). (A person who has one or more prior convictions for an offense involving impaired driving may be subject to a longer period of revocation, depending on when those offenses occurred.) At the conclusion of that one-year revocation period, the person may seek to have his or her license restored by furnishing proof of financial responsibility and by paying a restoration fee of $140.25. G.S. 20-7(c1), (i1). The license then may be restored with a restriction prohibiting the person from operating a vehicle with an alcohol concentration of 0.04 or more at any relevant time after the driving. G.S. 20-19(c3). That restriction, listed on the driver’s license as Restriction 19, remains in effect for three years. This post addresses how such a restriction is enforced and the consequences for a substantiated violation.
The court of appeals decided State v. Shelton, ___ N.C. App. ___ (2019) yesterday, determining that the evidence of the defendant’s impairment was sufficient when he took impairing drugs hours before crashing his vehicle into a pedestrian after his brakes failed. Two aspects of the case are of particular interest: (1) the court’s evaluation of the sufficiency of the evidence in a case where no one opined that the defendant was impaired; and (2) how the State obtained evidence that drugs remained in the defendant’s system in the first place.
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari a few weeks ago to consider whether a state statute authorizing the withdrawal of blood from an unconscious driver suspected of impaired driving provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. The case, Mitchell v. Wisconsin, arose in Wisconsin, but the issue may sound familiar to practitioners in North Carolina. Our state supreme court held in State v. Romano, 369 N.C. 678 (2017) (discussed here) that the warrantless withdrawal of blood from an unconscious DWI suspect pursuant to state statute when there was no exigency violated the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin reached a different conclusion in Mitchell. The case provides the United States Supreme Court with an opportunity to tie up the ends it left loose in Birchfield v. North Dakota, ___ U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016) by clarifying how implied consent laws authorizing blood draws without a suspect’s consent do or do not comport with the Fourth Amendment.
The easiest way for the State to prove impairment in a prosecution for impaired driving is by introducing the results of a test of the defendant’s breath. Such test results are admissible without the foundation that would otherwise be required for this kind of scientific evidence so long as the testing was carried out in accordance with statutory and administrative rules governing implied consent testing. G.S. 20-139.1(b). Because the rule allowing breath test results to be introduced into evidence is relied upon so often, I thought it might be helpful to review the admissibility rule and the requirements for such tests.
Two of last week’s opinions from the North Carolina Supreme Court address significant legal issues arising in impaired driving cases. In State v. Godwin, the supreme court reversed the court of appeals, holding that the trial court was not required to explicitly recognize a law enforcement officer as an expert witness before the officer could testify to the results of a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test. In State v. Romano, the supreme court upheld the court of appeals’ determination that the withdrawal of blood from an unconscious impaired driving defendant violated the Fourth Amendment, notwithstanding a state statute authorizing this practice.
The U.S. Supreme Court waded into the murky waters of implied consent law this term in Birchfield v. North Dakota. The opinion it issued last week clarified important aspects of the relationship between chemical testing for impairment and the Fourth Amendment, but failed to distill a coherent theory of implied consent. Here’s what we know after Birchfield:
- Warrantless breath testing of impaired driving suspects is permissible under the Fourth Amendment as a search incident to arrest. A person who refuses to submit to such testing may be subjected to sanctions ranging from license revocation to criminal prosecution.
- Warrantless blood testing of impaired driving suspects is not permissible under the Fourth Amendment as a search incident to arrest. Thus, a warrant or a suspect’s consent is required to conduct such testing. A person who refuses to submit to such testing may not be criminally prosecuted for that refusal.
The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning in three cases involving the chemical testing of impaired drivers. The question before the court in each case is whether, in the absence of a warrant, a state may make it a crime for a person to refuse to take a chemical test to detect the presence of alcohol in the person’s blood. I’m eager to hear what the high court has to say about this issue and to learn whether it will impact North Carolina’s implied consent laws, which, like the laws in every other state, do provide for warrantless chemical testing, but which do not criminalize refusal to be tested. But we don’t have to wait for the Supreme Court’s opinion to see how our state’s implied consent laws are evolving in a post-Missouri v. McNeely world. The North Carolina Court of Appeals decided a significant case yesterday, ruling in State v. Romano, __ N.C. App. ___ (2016), that the warrantless withdrawal of blood from an unconscious impaired driving suspect violated the Fourth Amendment, notwithstanding a state statute that permits such actions.
In its seminal opinion establishing the State’s right to withdraw blood from a DWI suspect over his objection and without a warrant when there are exigent circumstances, the United States Supreme Court left a significant question unanswered. The court in Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 747 (1966), noted that the petitioner “is not one of the few who on grounds of fear, concern for health, or religious scruple might prefer some other means of testing, such as the ‘Breathalyzer’ test petitioner refused. . . . We need not decide whether such wishes would have to be respected.” Id. at 771.
So how have courts in the ensuing four decades answered this question? Must an impaired driving suspect be offered the least intrusive type of chemical test available or a choice about the type of testing when he or she has a sincere objection to a particular test?
I almost missed this one. While I regularly monitor the published opinions of our state’s appellate courts, I generally skip the unpublished decisions. So I initially overlooked the court of appeals’ opinion in State v. Martinez, ___ S.E.2d ___ (N.C. App. Jan. 5, 2016) (first released as unpublished, but later published), which addresses a recurring question in DWI cases: Must a defendant who does not speak English be advised of statutory implied consent rights in a language that he or she understands?