Drunk driving: Can blood-alcohol test be forced? Case reaches Supreme Court.
The justices will hear arguments Wednesday in the case of a drunk driver forced to submit to a blood test. State supreme courts are divided on whether that violates the Fourth Amendment.
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McNeely was charged with driving while intoxicated. He had two prior convictions for drunk driving and faced up to four years in prison, if convicted.Skip to next paragraph
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McNeely’s lawyer filed a pre-trial motion seeking to exclude the blood sample as evidence because, the lawyer argued, it was obtained without a judicially-authorized warrant and thus violated McNeely’s right to be free from unreasonable searches.
The trial court agreed and excluded the evidence. A state appeals court reversed. The case went to the Missouri Supreme Court, which agreed with the trial court that the involuntary taking of blood from a suspect without first obtaining a warrant violated the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights.
In their appeal to the US Supreme Court, prosecutors from Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, argue that the trooper was justified in taking the forced blood sample without first obtaining a warrant because any delay in attempting to contact a prosecutor and judge late at night would facilitate the continuing destruction of evidence.
Alcohol in the bloodstream of a drunk driver is certain to dissipate through normal metabolism, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney John Koester said in his brief.
“The decision of the Missouri Supreme Court … actually requires the police to stand by and allow the best and most probative evidence of the crime to be destroyed during a drunk driving investigation,” Mr. Koester wrote.
“Such an approach is wholly inconsistent with core principles of the Fourth Amendment,” he said.
The Supreme Court has permitted law enforcement officials to conduct warrantless searches when necessary to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence. Koester says that’s what happens with each passing minute during a drunk driving investigation.
“Under these circumstances, it is reasonable for an officer to direct medical personnel at a hospital to draw a blood sample from a drunk driver without first obtaining a warrant,” Koester said.
“A prompt blood test, taken with as little delay as possible, provides the best and most probative evidence of intoxication,” he said. “The privacy interests of the individual, on the other hand, are minimal.”
Lawyers for McNeely disagree. They argue that there is no reason the trooper couldn’t have quickly obtained a judicially-authorized warrant before forcibly extracting McNeely’s blood.
Prosecutors and judges are routinely available around-the-clock, they say.
“As in all cases involving intoxication, the defendant’s blood alcohol was being metabolized by his liver. However, a prosecutor was readily available to apply for a search warrant and a judge was readily available to issue a warrant,” Mr. Shapiro said.
Shapiro said that a 1966 Supreme Court decision authorizes warrantless blood-alcohol tests, but only when there are exigent circumstances that might delay the testing long enough that the evidence will be destroyed.
In McNeely’s case there was no accident to be investigated and no one was injured requiring emergency medical treatment at the side of the road. Shapiro says under those circumstances there is no exigency that might justify an officer failing to obtain the required warrant.
Koester replies that a blood test is a “minor intrusion” that cannot counterbalance the public’s interest in highway safety.
“The public interest in ridding the nation’s roadways of drunk drivers clearly outweighs the privacy interests of the individual in being subjected to a simple blood test,” Koester said.