Supreme Court Weighs Blood-Test Warrants

By McCarton Ackerman 01/09/13

A landmark case considers how cops should be able to administer blood tests to DUI suspects.

Should cops need a warrant to give DUI
suspects a blood test?

A landmark case in the Supreme Court today will determine whether administering blood tests to suspected drunk drivers without a warrant is constitutional. The court will hear the case of Missouri native Tyler G. McNeely who claims his constitutional rights were violated in October 2010 when he was pulled over and arrested by the Missouri State Highway Patrol for suspected DWI and then given a nonconsensual blood test to secure evidence of intoxication. Lawyers for Missouri argued that waiting to secure a warrant would have compromised the evidence against him, since the alcohol in his system would have diminished in that time. "Obtaining a search warrant in the middle of the night in Cape Girardeau County involves a delay, on average, of approximately two hours," they wrote in court papers. McNeely's blood alcohol level clocked in at 0.154 (nearly double the .08 legal limit), but a trial court has already ruled in his favor, claiming the state's defense is not strong enough to justify a nonconsensual blood draw. While there are exceptions to obtaining a warrant in such circumstances, including endangerment of life and the destruction of evidence, trial judges ruled that McNeely's case fell outside of those exceptions. The case was then elevated to the Missouri Supreme Court, which confirmed the initial ruling.

Missouri's primary argument in this case is a 1966 Supreme Court case involving an alcohol-related arrest, Schmerber v. California, in which the Court provided some exceptions to the warrant requirement for the taking of a blood sample. "Allowing a police officer to obtain a warrantless blood test from a drunk driver strikes a favorable balance between legitimate law enforcement interests and the privacy interests of the individual," argued attorneys for Cape Girardeau County, Mo. Groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are lobbying for the Supreme Court to overturn the initial Missouri Court decision, which they say "threatens to hamper enforcement efforts against drunk drivers—and, as a result, could lead to more drunk driving and more tragic loss of life." MADD points out that in 2010, 10,228 people died in accidents related to drunk driving. Thirty-two states have also filed a brief supporting Missouri and urged the Supreme Court to allow warrantless blood draws in every drunk-driving investigation.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.