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Supreme Court to decide if states' implied consent laws are legal

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case that could have an important impact on Iowa law. At issue is whether police need a warrant before drawing the blood of an unconscious suspect in order to determine his level of intoxication.

The case before the court is from Wisconsin, which has a law similar to Iowa's and that of 28 other states. Wisconsin's law states that drivers, by operating a motor vehicle on our roadways, are deemed to have consented to breath, blood and urine tests whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe they are operating while intoxicated (OWI). This is called an "implied consent" law. In Wisconsin, this consent can be withdrawn.

In Iowa, refusal to submit to the test results in a civil penalty: loss of your driver's license for a year -- or longer if you have prior OWI-related license suspensions. You can apply for a temporary restricted license only after paying a $200 fine and installing ignition interlock devices on every vehicle you operate.

Supreme Court has already said that blood tests require warrants

The main issue with the law is whether requiring blood tests without a warrant violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the past, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that blood tests are more personally intrusive than breath tests, so blood tests require a warrant while breath tests do not. A question in the case is whether state implied consent laws obviate the warrant requirement when they specifically state that drivers have consented to blood tests.

The case the Supreme Court will hear involves a driver who was unconscious when a police officer offered him his opportunity to withdraw his consent to the blood test. Unable to rouse the suspect, the police had the blood drawn anyway -- without a warrant.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the blood test was legal because the officer had probable cause to believe the suspect was drunk. First of all, the suspect had earlier performed a breath test which indicated a blood alcohol content of 0.24. And, the officer had personally witnessed the suspect in what appeared to be a drunken state. Finally, under Wisconsin's implied consent law, the driver was found to have consented to the blood test unless he actively withdrew his consent.

Can probable cause alone justify a blood draw, or is a warrant actually required outside of an emergency? Can a state's implied consent law's inclusion of blood tests make a warrant unnecessary?

As is customary, the Supreme Court did not comment on the merits of the case but merely agreed to hear it. Arguments have not yet been scheduled.

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