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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Warrants Needed to Test Blood of Drunken Drivers

WASHINGTON (CN) - Police cannot skip the warrant requirement to test the blood of suspected drunken drivers based on the body's natural metabolization of alcohol, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

A Missouri highway patrolman had pulled Tyler McNeely over for speeding at 2:08 a.m. and arrested him for drunken driving shortly thereafter.

The officer said McNeely was slurring his speech and had alcohol on his breath. The suspect's eyes were allegedly bloodshot and he also failed a field sobriety test.

When McNeely would not consent to an alcohol breath test or blood test, the officer ordered a nonconsensual blood draw without seeking a warrant. The test, taken at 2:33 a.m., showed that McNeely's had a blood-alcohol content of 0.154, nearly twice the legal limit.

A judge in Cape Girardeau County suppressed the evidence, however, after finding that the nonconsensual and warrantless blood draw violated McNeely's Fourth Amendment rights.

In his defense, the patrolman said he thought that recent changes to Missouri's implied consent law removed the need for a warrant when an officer wishes to conduct a nonconsensual blood test on a DWI suspect.

The Missouri Supreme Court concluded in January 2012 that exigent circumstances did not preclude the need for a warrant.

Though the percentage of alcohol in a person's system diminishes as time passes from his last drink, this threat of evidence destruction does not justify a forcible blood draw within minutes of an arrest, according to the ruling.

Absent the existence of "special facts," other than the natural dissipation alcohol in the blood, officer must obtain warrants before gathering blood evidence in routine DWI cases, the decision stated.

After taking up the case in September, the U.S. Supreme Court said "exigency in this context must be determined case by case based on the totality of the circumstances."

The five-justice majority took pains to distinguish this case from its 1966 decision Schmerber v. California, which involved a drunken driving suspect who had suffered injuries in an accident and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

Testing delays will reduce the probative value of blood test results, "but it does not follow that we should depart from careful case-by-case assessment of exigency and adopt the categorical rule proposed by the state and its amici," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority.

"In those drunk-driving investigations where police officers can reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample can be drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so," she added.

The ruling also notes that there have been "advances in the 47 years since Schmerber was decided that allow for the more expeditious processing of warrant applications, particularly in contexts like drunk-driving investigations where the evidence offered to establish probable cause is simple."

Treating metabolization as a "per se exigency" in drunken driving cases could even hinder innovation in this field, according to the ruling.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote for the majority, did not join two parts of Sotomayor's opinion.

Sotomayor noted in Part II-B that the some of the dissenting justices had proposed a modified categorical rule with its own set of problems.

She wrote in Part III that case-by-case approaches are hardly unique, and that "any compelled intrusion into the human body implicates significant, constitutionally protected privacy interests."

Government interest in combating drunken driving also cannot overcome the warrant requirement, according to the ruling, which notes that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found one fatality related to an alcohol-impaired driving crash every 53 minutes in 2011.

Kennedy rejoined the opinion for Part IV, which returned to the specifics of McNeely's case and found "there was no exigency" since a prosecutor and judge had both been available, even at the late hour, to apply for and issue a search warrant.

In a separate partly concurring opinion, Kennedy said the case did not call for the court to address those other issues.

"As to Part III, much that is noted with respect to the statistical and survey data will be of relevance when this issue is explored in later cases," he wrote. "The repeated insistence in Part III that every case be determined by its own circum­stances is correct, of course, as a general proposition; yet it ought not to be interpreted to indicate this question is not susceptible of rules and guidelines that can give im­portant, practical instruction to arresting officers, in­struction that in any number of instances would allow a warrantless blood test in order to preserve the critical evidence."

The proposed modified rule to which Sotomayor objected was proposed in an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, written by Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito joined this opinion

"A police officer reading this court's opinion would have no idea - no idea - what the Fourth Amendment requires of him, once he decides to obtain a blood sample from a drunk driving suspect who has refused a breathalyzer test," Roberts wrote. "I have no quarrel with the court's 'totality of the circumstances' approach as a general matter; that is what our cases require. But the circumstances in drunk driving cases are often typical, and the court should be able to offer guidance on how police should handle cases like the one before us."

"Simply put, when a drunk driving suspect fails field sobriety tests and refuses a breathalyzer, whether a war­rant is required for a blood draw should come down to whether there is time to secure one," Roberts added.

In a broader dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said he "would hold that a warrantless blood draw does not violate the Fourth Amendment."

"A rule that requires officers (and ultimately courts) to balance transportation delays, hospital availability, and access to magistrates is not a workable rule for cases where natural processes inevitably destroy the evidence with every passing minute," Thomas wrote.

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