U.S. Supreme Court: Warrant Needed to Forcibly Draw Blood in DUIs


In October, I wrote about the case of Tyler G. McNeely. To briefly refresh your memory, McNeely was pulled over for speeding in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Officers suspected McNeely of driving under the influence. After refusing to submit to a chemical test, officers drove McNeely to the hospital to have blood forcibly withdrawn.

Half the states allow warrantless blood withdrawal in routine DUI cases.

The blood test showed that McNeely was over the legal limit. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that that the officers were “not justified” in forcibly withdrawing McNeely’s blood because it was not an “emergency” and should have obtained a warrant before the withdrawal. Prosecutors appealed to the United States Supreme Court arguing that officers should be allowed to forcibly withdraw blood because the alcohol in blood can disappear by the time a warrant can be obtained thereby making it an emergency. The United Supreme Court decided to hear the case and on April 17, 2013 came to a decision.

Drum roll please…

The court held that the officers in McNeely’s case should have obtained a warrant before withdrawing his blood.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority with Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Anthony M. Kennedy joining. The majority held that the withdrawal of a DUI suspect’s blood without a warrant and without consent constituted an illegal search in violation of McNeely’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Justice Sotomayor wrote, “We hold that in drunk-driving investigations, the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute an exigency in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant.”

This is not to say that in some cases exigency could be determined by other factors. While the court did not set a bright line rule, it did affirm the long standing “totality of circumstances” test which essentially means that the requirement of a warrant will continue to be determined on a case-by-case basis. The court’s failure to set a bright line rule led Chief Justice John Roberts to comment in his concurrence, “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.”

Essentially the Court acknowledged that officers cannot sidestep the oversight of a neutral judge when searching the thing we hold most private; our bodies. The practical effect of the ruling will be that law enforcement agencies will likely have to accelerate the warrant process without circumventing constitutional safeguards.

This is a great decision and I agree with Steven R. Shapiro, the attorney who represented McNeely before the Supreme Court, when he said, “We know from experience that drunk-driving laws can be strictly enforced without abandoning constitutional rights. Today’s decision appropriately recognizes what half the states have already demonstrated – that maintaining highway safety does not require sacrificing person privacy.”

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