What are your rights when you are unconscious and under the care of medical professionals?

On February 26, 2016, the Court of Appeal of California, Sixth Appellate District, released its opinion in the case of People v. Arredondo. The chief question in the case was under what circumstances may authorities seize a blood sample from an unconscious person suspected of drunk driving without offending the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.


Shortly before 11:00 p.m. on April 29, 2013, defendant drove his Jeep Cherokee away from a social gathering at which he and some of his six passengers had been drinking. One of the passengers testified that after visiting a liquor store, defendant began to “drive crazy,” ultimately causing the vehicle to flip over. Three passengers immediately left the scene. At least two of the remaining passengers were injured, one with a brain injury. Defendant was also injured, and was taken to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center where he was ultimately arrested and where a blood sample was drawn, disclosing a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent. Defendant was unconscious when the blood was drawn from him.

The Trial Court’s Ruling

Defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence derived from the warrantless extraction of his blood at the hospital. The prosecutor argued that the extraction was justified by (1) exigent circumstances, (2) statutorily implied consent, (3) the officer’s good faith belief that the extraction was lawful in light of longstanding practice under prior caselaw; and (4) good-faith reliance on the implied consent statute.

The trial court rejected the prosecution’s argument that exigent circumstances permitted the warrantless blood draw. However, the court found that a blood extraction was permissible, without a warrant or a showing of exigent circumstances, by virtue of California’s “implied consent” law, which declares that one who drives a motor vehicle in this state is “deemed” to consent to blood alcohol testing. The trial court also upheld the search on the basis that in conducting it, the officer reasonably relied on the implied consent law, thus bringing the search within the so-called “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule.

The Appellate Court’s Ruling

On review, the Court of Appeal addressed three distinct legal justifications for the warrantless search that the prosecution had presented on appeal: (1) statutory implied consent, (2) exigent circumstances, and (3) the officer’s reliance of the governing statute.

    1. Statutory Implied Consent

After devoting considerable analytical bandwidth to the issue of implied consent, the Court ultimately rejected the trial court’s reasoning that California’s “implied consent” law, as it relates to licensed California drivers, was sufficient to establish actual consent. Instead of classifying California’s “implied consent” law as actual consent, it referred to it as imputed consent. Clearly concerned with the ramifications on the Fourth Amendment if it was to hold that imputed consent is sufficient to sustain a warrantless search, the Court noted, “We fear the Fourth Amendment could be left in tatters by a rule empowering the state to predicate a search on conduct that does not in fact constitute a manifestation of consent but is merely ‘deemed’ to do so by legislative fiat. It is far from implausible, for example, that a legislative body—state or federal—might decree, in the name of public safety or national security, that the use of the mails, or the phone lines, or the internet—all of which rely to a greater or lesser extent on publicly owned property or facilities or publicly provided services—constitutes consent to search the contents of all communications thus conducted. Consent to search homes might be ‘deemed’ to be given by anyone taking advantage of various publicly provided or subsidized privileges—like use of public utilities, libraries, or schools. Consent to search the person might be ‘deemed’ to be given by use of a public sidewalk or occupancy of a public place.

   2. Exigent Circumstances

Unlike the implied-consent issue, the Court made quick work of the issue regarding exigent circumstances and sustained the trial court’s finding that there were no exigent circumstances sufficient to justify a warrantless search.

   3. Officer’s Reliance on Statute

Defendant won on issues #1 and #2, and had the Court’s review ended there he and his DUI lawyer would have walked away with a victory. The case would have been remanded back to the trial court with the instruction that the blood evidence be suppressed. However, the Court pulled the rug out from under him on issue #3.

As mentioned above, the trial court also upheld the search on the basis that in conducting it, the officer reasonably relied on the implied consent law, thus bringing the search within the so-called “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule. The Appellate Court agreed.

The “good faith” rule is not an exception to the warrant requirement but a limitation on the exclusionary rule, which generally bars the state from introducing, in a criminal prosecution, evidence obtained in violation of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. As the Court noted, “[t]he ‘good faith’ exception rests on the premise that the purpose of the exclusionary rule is to deter official misconduct by depriving the state of the fruits of unlawful searches. It is then supposed that when an officer acts in reasonable reliance on circumstances that would justify a warrantless search—including the applicable law as the officer reasonably understands it to be—no deterrent effect is achieved by suppressing evidence. It follows that if the officer reasonably relied on a statute authorizing the search, the statute’s later invalidation will not justify suppression of evidence.”

The Court held that “although the search here was unconstitutional, its fruits were admissible under the ‘good faith’ exception as articulated by the Supreme Court.”

What Now?

Police officers are now on notice that at least one California Appellate District has held that the “implied consent” law is insufficient to justify a warrantless blood draw of an unconscious California-licensed driver. This case now sets a legal precedent for DUI lawyers in particular and criminal defense attorneys in general that can be used in similar factual situations to argue that the officer’s reliance on the “implied consent” statute was unreasonable.

If you are in need of a DUI lawyer with a strong command of precedent-setting cases such as this one, contact San Diego criminal defense attorney Paul Hefley today!