Are warrantless DUI blood tests constitutional? On January 8, 2013, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding that very question. In Missouri v. McNeely, the Supreme Court heard arguments whether a warrantless blood draw violated the rights of Tyler McNeely, who was stopped for drunk driving in Missouri.
In an earlier proceeding, Cpl. Mark Winder of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, testified that at the time of the stop, McNeely’s speech was slurred, he was unsteady on his feet, and he had failed several field sobriety tests. The trooper also testified that McNeely was speeding and swerving his car.
Winder took a warrantless DUI blood test from McNeely, without his consent.
When McNeeley refused to submit to a breath test, Cpl. Winder drove McNeeley to the hospital and had a technician forcibly extract blood from McNeely. McNeely did not consent to the blood draw, and Cpl. Winder did not obtain a warrant from a judge. The blood tests showed that McNeely’s blood alcohol content was approximately twice the legal limit at the time of the extraction.
Missouri Supreme Court ruled that this warrantless DUI blood test was unconstitutional.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the results of the blood test were inadmissible because taking a person’s blood without a warrant violated the Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Missouri Supreme Court followed a line of prior rulings holding that the police generally need to obtain a warrant to take a suspect’s blood, with certain narrow exceptions.
State of Missouri appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
At oral arguments this past Wednesday, January 8, 2013, the Prosecutor argued to the United State Supreme Court that every DUI case should qualify as an exception to the warrant requirement because in every case, a person’s body breaks down drugs or alcohol soon after the person stops taking them. The prosecutor argued that because a person’s body steadily breaks down drugs and alcohol, any delay in taking a person’s blood would skew the evidence down. The prosecution expressed a concern that the process of obtaining a warrant could delay a case for up to three hours, which could render the blood test results worthless. The prosecutor implied that guilty persons may going free, or get less punishment as a result.
Opposing Counsel argues that citizen’s rights outweigh government’s ability to get best evidence.
The attorney for the respondent argued that many states have processes in place which would allow an officer to obtain a warrant within thirty (30) minutes. He further argued that a sweeping rule, allowing for warrantless blood extractions in every DUI, would discourage states from developing more efficient warrant systems. Opposing counsel also pointed out that a delay would not necessarily result in a total loss of evidence. A person’s body breaks down alcohol and drugs at a steady rate, not all at once.
Justice Antonin Scalia openly questioned whether the utility of allowing police officers to obtain warrantless blood tests would be outweighed by the violation of that person’s bodily integrity. Justice Alito asked “why should the Fourth Amendment permit the (blood test) to take place without the warrant when (a warrant) could have been obtained?”
Will Supremes compromise?
The Supreme Court Justices seem to be thinking about carving out a narrow DUI exception to the warrant requirement. At oral arguments, they asked questions about some sort of reasonable time test exception, and whether it would be feasible. It appeared that they were entertaining an exception that would allow a law enforcement officer to obtain a warrantless blood test, if a warrant would have unreasonably delayed the process. What is reasonable? It depends on the “totality of the circumstances.”
This is a scary debate with long reaching ramifications. It also constitutes a head-on assault on our Fourth Amendment rights. What the state of Missouri is arguing is that the government should be able to obtain a blood sample from any driver it suspects of DUI, at any time, without any restrictions.
Download the transcript.
Click here to download a transcript of the Oral Arguments.
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