Supreme Court nixes warrantless blood tests for DUI suspects

The United States Supreme Court recently expanded the amount of protection the Fourth Amendment affords those accused of drunk driving. The amendment protects suspects against unreasonable searches and seizures by agents of the government. The case, Missouri v. McNeely, will have a blanket effect on police procedure regarding drunk driving suspects nationwide.

What transpired in the case?

The case began when a Missouri highway patrol officer stopped a man for speeding one evening. As the officer conversed with the man during the stop, he noticed that he exhibited signs of intoxication. The officer then ordered the man to perform a field sobriety test.

Since the man performed the sobriety test poorly, the officer asked the man to take a breath test. When the man refused the breath test, the officer transported him to an area hospital and ordered the staff to draw the suspect's blood for testing. When the results of the blood test came back, they showed that the man's blood had almost twice the limit of alcohol allowed by law. He was then arrested for DUI.

At the man's trial, his attorneys asked the court to suppress the results of the blood test, because it was performed without a warrant, thus violating the Fourth Amendment. The prosecution argued that there were "exigent circumstances"-emergencies where getting a warrant would likely lead to a destruction of evidence-in this case. They argued that in the time it would take to get a warrant, the man's blood alcohol level would drop, due to the metabolism of alcohol, so police did not need to get a warrant before ordering the test.

The case eventually reached the Missouri Supreme Court, the state's highest court. It ruled that there were no exigent circumstances and said a warrant was required. The prosecution decided to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

No exigent circumstances

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, agreed with the Missouri Supreme Court. The court held that the natural metabolism of alcohol in a suspect's blood does not normally constitute an exigent circumstance, so a warrant is required in the majority of instances.

However, if there is an instance where a delay would likely impede the ability to collect reliable evidence, a warrant would not be required, the court ruled. However, the court said that such instances are heavily dependent on the surrounding circumstances and would need to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

An attorney can help

The court's decision makes it clear that states cannot routinely compel drunk driving suspects to take a blood test without first getting a warrant. Although there are likely to be police procedural changes, the case does not change the fact that drunk driving is a serious crime that carries heavy penalties. If you have been charged with drunk driving, consult an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure that your rights are protected.