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U.S. Supreme Court Requires Warrants For Blood Draws From Drunk Driving Suspects

April 17, 2013 Criminal Law and Procedure

In Missouri v. McNeely, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to adopt a rule that would permit police officers to draw a drunk driving suspect’s blood without a warrant under any circumstance.

McNeely was pulled over by a highway patrol officer at about two in the morning. The officer observed that McNeely had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and smelled of alcohol.  McNeely performed poorly on several field-sobriety tests and declined a breath test. He was arrested and taken to the police station where he again refused a breath test.

At this point, the officer took McNeely to the local hospital for a blood test. No attempt was made to secure a warrant for the test. The officer read McNeely the implied consent rules, which like in Michigan, mean that a refusal to take a chemical test can result in license revocation for one year. McNeely still refused the test and his blood was drawn, with his blood alcohol content measuring at .15, about twice the legal limit of .08. He was ultimately charged with operating while intoxicated.

Related:  What is an Implied Consent Hearing?

McNeely moved to suppress this evidence in trial court, arguing that the taking of his blood without a warrant was an unreasonable search that violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court agreed with McNeely. On appeal the Missouri Court of Appeals transferred the case directly to the Missouri Supreme Court, which affirmed the trial court’s decision.

The Fourth Amendment provides that individuals shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and that no warrants shall be issued without probable cause.

The search in this case was the insertion of a needle into McNeely’s arm in order to draw blood for investigatory purposes.

A warrantless search of a person is reasonable and therefore permissible only if the search falls within a recognized exception. One such exception is where the so-called exigencies of a situation make the needs of the police so compelling that a warrantless search will be objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. An exigency means that urgent action is required.

Here are a few examples of exigent circumstances. The police may enter a home without a warrant where there is cause to believe that a person inside is in need of emergency assistance. Also the police may enter a home without a warrant when they are in hot pursuit of a suspect. The imminent destruction of evidence is an exigent circumstance.

Whether there are exigent circumstances depends on what is called a totality of the circumstances test, meaning that the particular facts of every case must be viewed to determine whether a warrantless search was reasonable.

Related:  Kentucky v. King:  Destruction Of Evidence And Warrantless Searches

The Court had ruled in a prior case that warrantless blood draws of drunk-driving suspects would be evaluated based on the totality of the circumstances and could be reasonable in certain situations, such as where there had been a traffic accident and any investigation would allow for all evidence of alcohol to leave the body before a warrant could be issued.

In this case, the State of Missouri argued that the Court should adopt a per se rule that exigent circumstances always exist where an individual has been arrested for drunk-driving. The exigent circumstance would be the imminent destruction of evidence, as the alcohol content in a person’s blood dissipates rapidly after alcohol has been consumed.

The impact of this rule would be that police would have the power to draw blood from any person arrested of drunk driving.

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The Court did not agree that a per se rule should be established, writing that where the police can conduct a search within the parameters of the Fourth Amendment they must do so.

A suspect is not in control over the destruction of the evidence in drunk driving cases. Alcohol in the blood dissipates in a relatively predictable manner, based on a person’s weight, gender, and other factors. The suspect cannot simply flush evidence down the toilet as in a situation where the police are knocking on the door. It is true that there is a time delay during the transportation of a suspect to a hospital, but technological advances permit police officers to cut down the time necessary to apply and receive approval for a warrant. Thirty states now use an electronic warrant application process.

For these reasons the Court was not convinced that it should depart from a totality of the circumstance rule in these cases.

The Court did not go into whether the evidence in McNeely’s case would be thrown out as the parties in this case did not address that issue before the Court.

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