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

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.

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.

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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.

Whether a warrant is required should be linked, Chief Justice Roberts said, to whether the arresting police officer has enough time to obtain a warrant.

Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito joined Roberts’s dissent.

Justice Clarence Thomas also filed a dissent. He agreed with the Missouri argument that warrantless blood tests were justified by the loss of blood-alcohol evidence.

The decision stems from an October 2010 traffic stop in Missouri.

State Highway Patrol Cpl. Mark Winder pulled Tyler McNeely over after he observed Mr. McNeely’s pickup truck speeding and swerving across the road’s centerline.

While confronting the driver, the trooper noticed he 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. His performance suggested he was intoxicated.

Winder then asked McNeely to submit to a machine breath test. McNeely refused.

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

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

McNeely was charged with driving while intoxicated. With two prior convictions for drunken driving, he faced up to four years in prison.

In court, McNeely’s lawyer challenged the trooper’s decision to forcibly extract blood from the driver. The lawyer argued that the trooper should have obtained a court-authorized warrant before directing hospital personnel to draw blood.

The lawyer argued that the action violated his client’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The judge agreed and barred use of the blood evidence from the trial. A state appeals court reversed.

The case went to the Missouri Supreme Court, which agreed with the trial judge that the involuntary taking of blood from a suspect without first obtaining a warrant violated the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights.

In affirming the Missouri high court, Sotomayor rejected suggestions that the high court adopt a blanket approach to the issue.

“While the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support a finding of exigency in a specific case ... it does not do so categorically,” she said. “Whether a warrantless blood test of a drunk-driving suspect is reasonable must be determined case by case based on the totality of the circumstances.”

The case is Missouri v. Tyler McNeely (11-1425). 

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