Supreme Court To Rule on Warrantless DUI Blood Tests

Police officer adminstering a fielf sobriety test to a young man

Doug Menuez/Photodisc/Thinkstock

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today over whether police should be allowed to take blood samples of suspected drunk drivers without a warrant.

The justices are looking at the case of Tyler G. McNeely, who was pulled over for speeding by Missouri police in 2010 after leaving a bar. When police smelled alcohol on his breath and saw other signs of intoxication, McNeely admitted that he had been drinking but refused to take a breathalyzer or blood test.

Police arrested him and took him to a hospital to get a blood test, even though they didn’t have a judge’s permission. At issue is whether the the officers acted within their rights, or if the test constituted an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.

McNeely was, in fact, at nearly twice the legal limit of .08 blood alcohol content, with the test showing him at .154. However, he argued that prosecutors should not be allowed to use the reading as evidence against him because the police did not follow due process.

The arresting officer noted that a warrant could take two hours to procure in the middle of the night, and in the meantime a suspected drunk could sober up and escape prosecution if police had to wait to administer the test.

The initial court tossed the evidence against McNeely, ruling that a dropping BAC didn’t constitute an emergency situation like life endangerment that could justify bypassing the warrant process. The decision was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court, and now the U.S. high court will get an opportunity to weigh in.

County officials argued that a suspect sobering up can be construed as a similar situation to destruction of evidence, saying in court papers, “Although the dissipation rate will vary from person to person, one simple fact cannot be refuted — during a drunk driving investigation the best and most probative evidence of the crime is being lost at a significant rate.”

In the 1966 SCOTUS case Schmerber v. California, justices ruled that blood could be drawn from a DUI suspect without consent and without a warrant after an accident, based on exigent circumstances.

The ACLU is representing McNeely and while acknowledging that there could be specific situations where it might be okay for a warrant to be bypassed, urged the court not to give police a blanket OK to draw blood, writing, “The issue in this case is whether the police can compel a warrantless blood test in every DWI case.”

McNeely’s attorneys noted that anyone who refuses to submit to a blood test is automatically subject to license suspension even if they aren’t convicted.

During today’s arguments, justices seemed to lean away from ruling that police can always take blood without a warrant. Even the conservative justices seemed reluctant to accept such an idea, with Antonin Scalia saying at one point, “Once we say police don’t need a warrant, the game’s over.”

The justices appeared to be leaning toward preserving the exigent circumstances test to bypass a warrant, suggesting that if, perhaps, it took more than a half hour to get a judge’s permission police could go ahead and order the test.

An opinion is expected to be issued later this year.

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