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Supreme Court: forced blood tests in drunk-driving cases not always OK

The Supreme Court decision Wednesday means that sometimes police will need to obtain a warrant in drunk-driving cases before administering a forced blood test – and that sometimes they won’t.

By Staff writer / April 17, 2013

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to create a categorical rule that would have allowed police to force drunken drivers to submit to a blood test without first obtaining a warrant from a neutral judge.

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Instead, the majority justices said police cannot automatically rely on the dissipation of a drunken-driving suspect’s blood-alcohol level to justify police action without a warrant.

In a 5-to-4 decision, Justice Sonia Sotomayor rejected an argument made by Missouri officials that police in the state were entitled to force DUI arrestees to undergo warrantless blood tests.

State officials said that the dissipation of a suspect’s blood-alcohol level through metabolism marked the ongoing destruction of evidence and created an exigency that justified fast police action without a warrant.

The majority justices disagreed.

“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,” Justice Sotomayor said.

Boiled to its essence, the high-court decision means that sometimes the police will need to obtain a warrant before administering a forced blood test and that sometimes they won’t.

Joining Sotomayor’s opinion were Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy said that the underlying case – a Missouri drunken-driving arrest – did not provide the proper framework for a broader decision.

“States and other governmental entities which enforce the driving laws can adopt rules, procedures, and protocols that meet the reasonableness requirements of the Fourth Amendment and give helpful guidance to law enforcement officials,” he said.

The high court “in due course, may find it appropriate and necessary to consider a case permitting it to provide more guidance than it undertakes to give today,” Kennedy added.

Chief Justice John Roberts said in a dissent that the court should use the case to establish a clear test for when law-enforcement officials must obtain a warrant and when the warrant requirement may be bypassed by an exigency.


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