Supreme Court Clarifies Warrants Needed for Blood Tests in DUI Cases.

The Supreme Court issued a 8-1  decision in Missouri v. McNeely holding that police officers cannot routinely conduct warrantless blood-alcohol tests.   A warrant requirement “must be determined case by case based on the totality of the circumstances.”   The court affirmed that this case derived from a routine DWI stop that presented no exigent circumstances other than the natural diminishment of blood alcohol content.  Therefore, the warrantless blood draw violated the DWI suspect’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.

Justice Sotomayor, delivering the opinion, stated that if the police 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.”  But if the circumstance of a case are such that obtaining a warrant would take an unreasonably long time, police can make judgments about whether the delay is an exigent circumstance.

The court relies on police officers’ familiarity with their warrant process and the average time involved in obtaining a warrant.  Only if an officer believes that the blood test is needed quickly given the exigency of the decreasing blood alcohol levels, an officer may order a blood test without a warrant or the suspect’s consent.

Justice Thomas dissented noting: “Because the body’s natural metabolization of alcohol inevitably destroys evidence of the crime, it constitutes an exigent circumstance. As a result, I would hold that a warrantless blood draw does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

You can find the full opinion here.

(earlier post)   SCOTUS Argument Recap: Compromise on Search Warrants, Blood Draws for DUI Suspects? welcomes NBWA Industry Affairs Coordinator and law student Amy Wells to the blog.  Here is Amy’s first entry:

I recently had the honor to attend my first oral argument at the Supreme Court, and it was the very interesting case of Missouri v. McNeely.  The court debated the propriety of drawing blood for DUI investigations and whether a police officer can legally obtain a blood sample from a DUI suspect without a warrant.

This case was an appeal from the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled for McNeely and barred the test results.  Missouri argued that with each passing minute the suspect’s body is destroying vital evidence, and in rural America, the magistrate is often tucked into bed at 3:00 a.m. delaying the warrant process.  The ACLU argued that a state’s failure to modernize its warrant process is not a justification for warrantless blood draws.

In the oral argument, the justices noted that the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement should not be dismissed to allow blood draws for all drunk driving cases, but they also expressed apprehension of DUI suspects refusing breathalyzer tests only to delay until a time when their blood alcohol content is lower once a warrant is obtained. Also, the justices seemed concerned about police having an open-ended ability to draw blood, as they appeared to regard blood samples as intrusive.

It appears from the oral argument that the justices will seek a compromise that may require police officers at least to attempt to obtain a search warrant, but will sometimes allow for blood draws without a warrant.  How they draw this line will be interesting to watch.

Click here for the transcripts of the oral arguments.  A decision will be rendered by June.

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