Schmerber v. California: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

Can a blood test be considered self-incrimination?

A doctor draws blood from a patient.

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Schmerber v. California (1966) asked the Supreme Court to determine whether evidence from a blood test could be used in a court of law. The Supreme Court addressed the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment claims. A 5-4 majority determined that police officers could involuntarily take a blood sample when making an arrest.

Fast Facts: Schmerber v. California

  • Case Argued: April 25, 1966
  • Decision Issued: June 20, 1966
  • Petitioner: Armando Schmerber 
  • Respondent: State of California
  • Key Questions: When police instructed a physician to take a blood sample from alleged drunk driver Armando Schmerber without his permission and before his attorney arrived, did they violate his 4th amendment right to due process and unlawful searches and seizures, his 5th amendment privilege against self-incrimination, or his 6th amendment right to counsel? 
  • Majority: Justices Brennan, Clark, Harlan, Stewart, and White 
  • Dissenting: Justices Black, Warren, Douglas, and Fortas
  • Ruling: The court ruled against Schmerber, arguing that an officer could request a blood test without consent if it was an "emergency situation;" Schmerber's state at the time provided the office probable cause, and the blood test was similar to a "search" of his person for firearms or weapons. Further, they argued that a blood test could not be considered "compelled testimony," and therefore could be used as evidence against him. Finally, since his attorney would have been unable to refuse the blood test, Schmerber did have proper access to counsel after his attorney arrived. 

Facts of the Case

In 1964, police responded to the scene of a car accident. The driver of the car, Armando Schmerber, appeared to be drunk. An officer smelled alcohol on Schmerber's breath and noted that Schmerber's eyes looked bloodshot. Schmerber was transported to the hospital. After noticing similar signs of drunkenness at the hospital, the officer placed Schmerber under arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. In order to confirm Schmerber's blood alcohol content, the officer asked a doctor to retrieve a sample of Schmerber's blood. Schmerber refused, but the blood was drawn and sent to a lab for analysis.

The lab report was submitted as evidence when Schmerber stood trial at the Los Angeles Municipal Court. The court convicted Schmerber for the criminal offense of operating an automobile while under the influence of intoxicating liquor. Schmerber and his attorney appealed the decision on multiple grounds. The appellate court affirmed the conviction. The Supreme Court granted certiorari because of new constitutional decisions since the matter was last addressed in Breithaupt v. Abram.

Constitutional Issues

When the police instructed a physician to involuntarily take a blood sample to be used against Schmerber in court, did they violate his right to due process, privilege against self-incrimination, right to counsel, or protection against unlawful searches and seizures?

Arguments

Attorneys on behalf of Schmerber made multiple constitutional arguments. First, they alleged that a blood test administered against the will of an individual and submitted into evidence is a due process violation under the Fourteenth Amendment. Second, they argued that drawing blood for a lab test should qualify as a "search and seizure" of evidence under the Fourth Amendment. The officer should have obtained a search warrant prior to taking the blood after Schmerber refused. Furthermore, a blood test should not be used in court because it violates Schmerber's privilege against self-incrimination, according to Schmerber's attorney.

Representing the state of California on appeal, lawyers from the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office focused on the Fourth Amendment claim. They argued that blood seized during a lawful arrest could be used in a court of law. The officer did not violate Schmerber's Fourth Amendment protections when he seized readily available evidence of the crime in the process of an arrest. Attorneys on behalf of the state also drew a line between blood and more common examples of self-incrimination, like speaking or writing. The blood test could not be considered self-incrimination because blood is unrelated to communication.

Majority Opinion

Justice William J. Brennan delivered the 5-4 decision. The majority handled each claim separately.

Due Process

The Court spent the least amount of time on the due process claim. They upheld their former decision in Breithaupt, reasoning that the withdrawal of blood in a hospital setting did not deprive an individual of their right to substantive due process. They noted that in Breithaupt the majority had reasoned that even the withdrawal of blood from an unconscious suspect did not offend a "sense of justice."

Privilege Against Self-Incrimination

According to the majority, the intent of the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination was to protect someone accused of a crime from being compelled to testify against themselves. An involuntary blood test could not be related to "compelled testimony," the majority held.

Justice Brennan wrote:

"Since the blood test evidence, although an incriminating product of compulsion, was neither petitioner's testimony nor evidence relating to some communicative act or writing by the petitioner, it was not inadmissible on privilege grounds."

The Right to Counsel

The majority reasoned that Schmerber's Sixth Amendment right to counsel had not been violated. His attorney had made an error when instructing Schmerber to refuse the test. Regardless, Schmerber's counsel was able to advise him on any rights he did possess at the time.

Search and Seizure

The majority ruled that the officer did not violate Schmerber's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures when he instructed the doctor to draw Schmerber's blood. The officer in Schmerber's case had probable cause to arrest him for drunk driving. The majority reasoned that drawing his blood was similar to a "search" of his person for firearms or weapons at the time of arrest.

The majority agreed that the timeline played a large role in their ruling. Evidence of blood alcohol content degrades over time, making it more necessary to draw blood at the time of arrest, rather than waiting for a search warrant.

Dissenting Opinion

Justices Hugo Black, Earl Warren, William O. Douglas, and Abe Fortas wrote individual dissenting opinions. Justice Douglas argued that "bloodletting" was an invasive violation of an individual's right to privacy, citing Griswold v. Connecticut. Justice Fortas wrote that forcibly drawing blood was an act of violence perpetrated by the state and violated an individual's privilege against self-incrimination. Justice Black, joined by Justice Douglas, argued that the court's interpretation of the Fifth Amendment was too strict and that privilege against self-incrimination should apply to blood tests. Chief Justice Warren stood by his dissent in Breithaupt v. Abrams, arguing that the case ran contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause.

Impact

The standard set by Schmerber v. California remained lasted for nearly 47 years. The case was widely regarded as a clarification on the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures because it did not consider a blood test unreasonable. In 2013, the Supreme Court revisited Blood tests in Missouri v. McNeely. The 5-4 majority rejected the idea in Schmerber that the diminishing blood alcohol level created an emergency situation in which officers did not have time to seek out a warrant. There must be other "exigent circumstances" to allow an officer to request blood to be drawn and tested without a warrant.

Sources

  • Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966).
  • Denniston, Lyle. “Argument Preview: Blood Tests and Privacy.” SCOTUSblog, SCOTUSblog, 7 Jan. 2013, www.scotusblog.com/2013/01/argument-preview-blood-tests-and-privacy/.
  • Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013).