Are Blood Tests for DUIs Reasonable? The Supreme Court Weighs In
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday in the case of Missouri vs. McNeely, which asks if a blood sample can be taken from a suspected drunk driver without their consent or a warrant under the “exigent circumstances” exception to the Fourth Amendment. Lawyers for the state of Missouri think it should be allowed based on the idea that the natural dissipation of alcohol from the body is essentially destruction of evidence, and a delay in being able to obtain a blood sample prevents prosecutors from building a case with the best possible evidence.
The case arose from the 2010 arrest of Tyler McNeely in Missouri for suspected DWI. McNeely, who had two previous DWI convictions, refused to take a breathalyzer test after failing field sobriety testing and was transported to a local hospital by the arresting officer where blood was drawn without a warrant or McNeely’s consent. The results of McNeely’s blood sample were suppressed (a BAC of 0.154) in McNeely’s trial after his defense lawyers successfully argued a warrant should have been obtained. The Missouri Supreme Court eventually heard the case and affirmed that a warrant was needed.
In yesterday’s hearings, it appeared the justices questioned how a warrantless blood test is reasonable or needed. Early on, Justice Sotomayor posed the question, “So how can it be reasonable to forego the Fourth Amendment in a procedure as intrusive as a needle going into someone’s body?” Justice Kennedy pointed out that half of all states do not allow warrantless blood draws and have streamlined processes in place to quickly allow warrants to be granted. The issue of a rural community’s ability to implement a warrant process as easily as an urban community and if that qualified as an exigent circumstance was also raised, to which Justice Sotomayor asked, “Is reasonableness judged by the people who are the least efficient or most “reasonably” efficient?”
Attorney John Koestner, Jr., representing Missouri in this case, argued that although the arresting officer had not encountered trouble in the past obtaining warrants, there was going to be a delay in this particular case, and that “quickly securing blood alcohol evidence is important, because the evidence is being lost at a significant rate with every minute that passes.”
Justice Scalia asked Attorney Steven Shapiro, representing McNeely on behalf on the ACLU, if the main advantage for a suspected DWI driver when a warrant is required is a delay that could result in a lower BAC. Shapiro answered that Fourth Amendment protections are strengthened when warrants are required because of the review done by a neutral party prior to the granting of a warrant.
In 1966 Chief Justice William Brennen wrote a majority opinion for Schmerber v. California, which approved a warrantless blood draw in a drunk driving case. Technology, and the ability to streamline virtual warrants may alter this Court’s perspective on Schmerber.
Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog thinks it is very clear that the Court will require a warrant, at least in the ordinary DUI case. If so, it may turn out to be an example of the current Justices having a more liberal take on the Fourth Amendment than the Warren Court did in 1966.
What do you think? Does a state’s interest outweigh the privacy concerns of the individual when it is applied to the prosecution of drunk driving?
Click here to read the transcript of yesterday’s hearing.