Can a patient seeking care at a hospital give a blood sample for the purposes of acquiring medical treatment while retaining their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure of that sample of blood by the police? According to a recent Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals decision, the official answer is still unclear.
On February 16, 2013, an Alabama driver struck and severely injured a pedestrian. The police arrived on the scene, and after some discussion about whether the driver needed medical treatment, the driver asked to be taken to the hospital. As the driver was being loaded into an ambulance, the officer asked him to consent to a blood test to check his blood-alcohol content (“BAC”). The driver refused, which he had the right to do.
At some point, however, the driver did consent to the paramedic’s request for blood samples to be used “for medical purposes.” Upon arrival at the hospital, the driver refused further treatment and left. His blood, having been left behind with the paramedics, was then discarded into a locked hazardous-waste container. Hours later, the officer who requested a blood test came to the hospital and—without obtaining a warrant—“broke open the container,” retrieved the driver’s blood, and submitted the blood to the Department of Forensic Sciences. The lab tested the blood to determine the driver’s BAC. That test revealed that the driver’s BAC was 0.29 percent—more than three times the illegal limit of 0.08%.
After the test, the driver was arrested, charged, and convicted with first-degree assault, and was sentenced, as a habitual felony offender, to 99 years’ imprisonment. The driver appealed his conviction, but the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the result. Next, the driver filed an action claiming ineffective assistance of counsel arguing that his lawyer had failed to provide adequate assistance by failing to assert the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure.
In considering whether his counsel was insufficient, it is important to note that the legal principle is that once a defendant shows a search without a warrant, the burden is on the State to prove an exception to the protection of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Both the Federal Constitution and the Alabama State Constitution provide protections from unreasonable warrantless seizures and searches. The unreasonable warrantless taking of a person’s blood and testing it for possible criminal activity, including blood alcohol content, is a basis for suppressing the BAC test results. Keep in mind the police actually broke into a locked garbage can in order to literally “steal” the blood vials to use as evidence in McCoy’s felony trial. Ultimately, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled against the driver in his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim finding the question of whether the Fourth Amendment covers a blood sample already taken from a defendant to be unsettled in the State of Alabama. In short, the court rejected the driver’s ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim holding that while the driver’s attorney did not raise the Fourth Amendment claim relating to the “garbaged” blood vials, the lawyer did have a suppression hearing on the admissibility of the BAC results on other grounds.
While Federal caselaw provides that the Fourth Amendment covers “intrusions into the human body” to obtain a blood sample, it has not addressed whether it covers blood which has been left behind. While courts in Ohio and Texas have found that blood given for medical treatment is covered by the Fourth Amendment, courts in New York and New Hampshire have held the opposite. The states are split on the issue and because the Court of Criminal Appeals did not directly address the question, it remains unresolved in Alabama.
Even though this appeal dealt primarily with whether the driver’s attorney made a mistake, the court did discuss the fundamental issue of whether the police can steal a person’s blood vials from the garbage can at the hospital and turn the blood over for testing by the state lab. The court indicated that the Driver had abandoned the blood vials.
— What this means for Alabama drivers —
First, Be wary of giving your blood to anyone—even healthcare professionals. Your physical health, of course, is of utmost importance and if needed you should seek medical attention. Just be aware that your blood taken for medical purposes is not yours if you abandon it. The police, or anyone else can take it, even from a locked garbage can!
Second, when facing a DUI, or any alcohol or drug-related crime, make sure to hire a team of expert attorneys with years of experience in DUI and related criminal defense work who will be able to catch and argue even novel, unsettled questions of Fourth Amendment law.
This blog entry was written with the assistance of the Honorable Andrew J. Biggs, Esq. with our law firm of Crumbley, Blackwell and Price, P. C. located in Huntsville, Alabama.
Phillip B. Price, Sr.
 McCoy v Alabama, CR-20-0821, (February 10, 2023)
 State v. Funk, 896 N.E.2d 203 (Ohio Ct. App. 2008).
 State v. Martinez, 570 S.W.3d 278 (Tex. Crim. App. 2019).
 People v. Dolan, 95 Misc. 2d 470, 474, 408 N.Y.S.2d 249, 252 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1978)
 State v. Bazinet, 184 A.3d 448 (N.H. 2018)