Schmerber v. California

Following is the case brief for Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966)

Case Summary of Schmerber v. California:

  • Police ordered a physician to take petitioner’s blood, without petitioner’s consent, in connection with a drunk driving incident.  Petitioner was convicted of drunk driving with the blood sample as evidence against him.
  • Petitioner appealed, claiming the taking of his blood violated his Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
  • The Supreme Court held that the involuntary taking of petitioner’s blood did not implicate any right except his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.  Because there was exigency in obtaining a sample before alcohol dissipated in petitioner’s blood, a warrantless search and seizure was appropriate in this case.

Schmerber v. California Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Petitioner was apparently the driver of a car involved in an accident.  He was subsequently taken to the hospital.  The police officer in the case noticed liquor on petitioner’s breath at the accident scene and later observed petitioner showing signs of drunkenness at the hospital.

The officer arrested petitioner at the hospital.  Although petitioner did not consent on the advice of counsel, the officer directed a physician at the hospital to draw petitioner’s blood to test for alcohol content.  The test indicated that petitioner was intoxicated.  The blood test was admitted into evidence in petitioner’s trial for driving while intoxicated, and he was convicted in Los Angeles Municipal Court.

Procedural History:

Following his conviction, petitioner appealed to the Appellate Department of the California Superior Court.  Petitioner argued at trial and on appeal that the drawing of his blood was a violation of:

  1. Due process under the Fourteenth Amendment,
  2. The privilege against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment,
  3. The right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment, and
  4. The privilege against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.

The appellate court affirmed the conviction, rejecting petitioner’s constitutional arguments.  The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Did the involuntary taking of blood from a person suspected of driving while intoxicated violate that person’s right to due process, privilege against self-incrimination, right to counsel, or privilege against warrantless searches where there was exigent circumstances?  No.


The judgment of the Appellate Department of the Superior Court of California is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The involuntary drawing of a suspect’s blood does not implicate due process, self-incrimination, or the right to counsel.  A search warrant is required to draw a suspect’s blood, except under exigent circumstances.


The Court addressed all of petitioner’s arguments raised in the courts below.

  • Due Process – Fourteenth Amendment

In Breithaupt v. Abram, 352 U.S. 432 (1957), a case with similar facts, the Court held that a suspect’s due process right is not violated when blood is drawn from the suspect involuntarily. Accordingly, Breithaupt controls here.

  • Self-Incrimination – Fifth Amendment

Because the drawing of blood does not involve evidence of a testimonial or communicative nature, the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination is not implicated here.

  • Right to Counsel – Sixth Amendment

Since petitioner was unable to assert the privilege against self-incrimination, he has no greater right because counsel mistakenly told him that he could assert it.  Thus, there is no Sixth Amendment violation in this case.

  • Unreasonable Search and Seizure – Fourth Amendment

The taking of a person’s blood is, indeed, a search and seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, which requires a warrant.  However, here the warrantless drawing of blood was justified by exigent circumstances.  The police officer in this case would be reasonable to think there was no time to get a warrant without sacrificing “destruction” of evidence (i.e., alcohol dissipating from petitioner’s blood).  Moreover, the drawing of petitioner’s blood was done in a reasonable manner — by a physician in a hospital environment.

It is important to note that the outcome of this case is based on its specific facts.  It should not be construed to invite the taking of a suspect’s blood in circumstances that are less reasonable, such as in a police station, without a medical professional.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Harlan):

This case simply does not implicate the Fifth Amendment.

Dissenting Opinion (C.J. Warren):

(Relying on his dissent from Breithaupt v. Abram).  Due process should at least mean that an officer’s search for evidence must stop at the bruising or puncturing of skin, or the taking of bodily fluids from a person.

Dissenting Opinion (Black):

The taking of petitioner’s blood was compelling him to be a witness against himself.  Specifically, the government, against petitioner’s will, punctured his skin, took a sample of his blood, and then used the results of that sample as evidence against him.  It is difficult to comprehend how that would not be compelled self-incrimination.

Dissenting Opinion (Douglas):

A right of privacy exists based on the guarantees in the Bill of Rights.  Forcibly drawing blood violates that constitutional zone of privacy.

Dissenting Opinion (Fortas):

Taking a person’s blood involuntarily is a type of violence, a tort in fact, that offends the privilege against self-incrimination and due process.


Schmerber v. California is a landmark Court decision because it clarifies, for the first time, the application of the Fourth and Fifth Amendment to searches that intrude on the human body, such as a blood draw.

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