Breithaupt v. Abram, 352 U.S. 432 (1957)

2012-01-11 09:46:50

Breithaupt was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in New Mexico following an automobile collision resulting in three deaths. The primary evidence was a blood test showing his blood alcohol content at 0.17 percent. Breithaupt argued that this blood sample, which was obtained while he was unconscious due to his injuries, was illegally obtained and thus should have been excluded. Six justices, speaking through Justice Tom Clark, rejected this argument based on Wolf v. Colorado. Breithaupt also argued, on the basis of Rochin v. California, that the involuntary blood test ‘‘shocked the conscience,’’ thus violating his substantive due process rights.

The Court, however, distinguished the blood test at issue in Breithaupt from the forceful stomach pumping at issue in Rochin. The majority concluded that there was nothing offensive or brutal in the taking of a blood sample, under the supervision of a physician, despite the lack of conscious consent. Instead, a blood test was part of a routine medical examination and thus not violative of a suspect’s due process rights.

Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William O. Douglas wrote forceful dissents, both joined by Justice Hugo Black. The dissenters were especially outraged by police methods that, in Justice Douglas’s words, violated ‘‘the sanctity of the person.’’

Breithaupt is most significant in limiting the ‘‘shocks the conscience’’ test elaborated in Rochin and in demonstrating the subjectivity involved in that test. The case was later reaffirmed in Schmerber v. California, decided after Wolf was overruled by Mapp v. Ohio.


References and Further Reading

  • LaFave, Wayne R., Jerold H. Israel, and Nancy J. King. Criminal Procedure. 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: West, 1999

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961) 
  • Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165 (1952) 
  • Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966) 
  • Wolf v. Colorado, (1949), overruled by Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961)