Judging Traffic (June 2019)


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SCOTUS in Mitchell v. Wisconsin: Exigent-Circumstances Doctrine Allows Blood Draw From Unconscious Driver

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Mitchell v. Wisconsin at the end of June. At issue was the question of whether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. A four-justice plurality (Justices Alito, Roberts, Breyer, and Kavanaugh) held that an unconscious driver created an exigent circumstance that allowed for a warrantless search given that a) the BAC evidence was dissipating and b) some other factor creates pressing health, safety, or law enforcement need. Justice Clarence Thomas provided the fifth vote concurring in the court's judgment, but would have permitted the blood draw and adopted a per se rule that the natural metabolization of alcohol creates an exigency, whether the driver was conscious or unconscious. In the lead dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor expressed concern that plurality had extended the exigent circumstances exception too far. Justice Neil Gorsuch filed a separate dissent, noting that left unanswered by the court was the question of whether the state's implied consent statute was valid and indicating the proper course of action would have been to dismiss Mitchell and await some other case that specifically focused on the question of the exigent circumstances.

Iowa Supreme Court: State Constitution Does Not Preclude Pretextual Traffic Stops

The Iowa Supreme Court handed down its decision in State vs. Scottize Danyelle Brown on June 28. At issue in the case was whether the Iowa state constitution allowed for pretextual traffic stops. The defendant acknowledged that under the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Whren v. United States the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution allowed for such stops, but questioned whether the Iowa Constitution's similar provision gave greater protections.

Four justices of the court held the Iowa constitution did not preclude such stops, finding that "the subjective motivations of an individual officer for making a traffic stop are irrelevant, as long as the officer has objectively reasonable cause to believe the motorist violated a traffic law." In dissent three of the justices of the court would have found that the Iowa constitution provided greater protection than the "floor" provided by the Fourth Amendment.

The majority opinion is notable in that it looks expansively at this issue across other states, finding (and citing) in Footnote 3 to 40 states and the District of Columbia that have reached the same conclusion that traffic stops for traffic violations are reasonable regardless of the officer’s subjective motivation. The dissent examines Whren in light of changes in society as well as examining the issue of implicit bias, racial profiling, and the role they can play in such traffic stops.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Multi-jurisdiction DUI Checkpoints Require Formal Agreements/Ordinances

A May decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that the practice of cross-jurisdictional DUI checkpoints required formal creation and authorization by the municipalities involved. The defendant in Commonwealth v. Hlubin had been stopped at a sobriety checkpoint in Robinson Township by a Moon Township police officer based on an agreement between the chiefs of police of both townships (along with 14 other jurisdictions). Based on police observations and testing Hlubin was arrested for DUI. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that the agreements among the various police chiefs that allowed for the Moon Township officer to act in Robinson were insufficient to extend jurisdiction under the state's Intergovernmental Cooperation Act. Based on that determination, all evidence against Hlubin obtained from the checkpoint was suppressed.

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