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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.

By Staff writer / January 8, 2013


The US Supreme Court takes up a case on Wednesday that examines whether police must obtain a warrant from a neutral judge before forcibly extracting blood from a suspected drunk driver.

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At issue is when police have the authority to force a motorist to submit to a blood test after the motorist refuses a breathalyzer test.

Under the Fourth Amendment, Americans are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures. That means before police invade a person’s privacy, they must demonstrate to a neutral judge that there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. If the judge is convinced, a search warrant is issued.

That’s what happens in most cases. But the Supreme Court has ruled that under certain circumstances police are free to conduct a search without first obtaining a warrant.

The question in Wednesday’s case, Missouri v. McNeely (11-1425), is whether a state trooper violated motorist Tyler McNeely’s Fourth Amendment rights when the trooper ordered a hospital attendant to forcibly take a blood sample from a hand-cuffed Mr. McNeely to preserve evidence of his elevated blood-alcohol level.

The argument for allowing warrantless blood tests is centered on the fact that blood alcohol levels fall with time.

The Supreme Court is being asked to resolve a split among state supreme courts on the issue. The top courts in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Oregon have all ruled that the rapid dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream is a sufficient exigency to justify a warrantless blood test.

In contrast, state high courts in Iowa, Utah, and Missouri have ruled that dissipation does not excuse police from obtaining a warrant before conducting an involuntary blood test.

The Obama administration and attorneys general from 32 states, the District of Columbia, and Guam are urging the Supreme Court to declare that warrantless blood tests do not violate the Fourth Amendment.

In the case before the court Wednesday, McNeely was pulled over in October 2010 by Missouri State Highway Patrol Cpl. Mark Winder. The trooper says he saw McNeely’s pickup truck speeding and veering across the highway’s centerline.

After stopping McNeely, the trooper noticed the driver had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and a strong odor of alcohol on his breath. McNeely was given a field sobriety test, including the one-leg stand test. He performed poorly.

That’s when Corporal Winder asked McNeely to submit to a machine breath test. McNeely refused.

Winder placed McNeely under arrest for driving while intoxicated. On the way to the county jail, the trooper stopped at the hospital. After McNeely refused to submit to a blood test, the officer directed an attendant to forcibly extract a sample of McNeely’s blood.

The test revealed that McNeely had a blood alcohol content of 0.154 percent, significantly above the legal limit of .08 percent.


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