Warrantless Blood Tests in DWI Investigations Under Review by U.S. Supreme Court

January 11, 2013

file000709986619.jpgThe U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments recently in an appeal by Missouri prosecutors challenging the suppression of warrantless blood evidence. The state is arguing in Missouri v. McNeely, No. 11-1425, that the breakdown of alcohol in the bloodstream limits the time to collect evidence in a DWI investigation, and that this time limit constitutes an exigent circumstance justifying a blood test without the suspect's consent or a warrant. The test involves drawing blood from a suspect's vein. Supreme Court precedent allows warrantless blood tests in strictly limited circumstances, but Missouri is asking the court to expand this to all DWI investigations.

An officer with the Missouri State Highway Patrol stopped the defendant, Tyler McNeely, for an alleged traffic offense. The officer allegedly noticed "tell-tale signs of intoxication," including "slurred speech" and "bloodshot eyes." Missouri v. McNeely, 358 S.W.3d 65, 67-68 (Mo. 2012). After McNeely did not perform well on field-sobriety tests, he refused to submit to breath or blood tests. The officer later testified that he believed he did not need a warrant to collect a blood sample, so he took McNeely to a nearby hospital and directed a technician to draw blood. McNeely moved the court to suppress the results of the blood test for violating his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. The trial court agreed and suppressed the evidence, and the state filed an interlocutory appeal with the state supreme court. This appeal would eventually make its way to Washington DC.

The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the suppression order. It distinguished McNeely's case from the U.S. Supreme Court precedent allowing warrantless blood tests, Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966). The suspect in Schmerber was involved in an accident, while allegedly driving while intoxicated, and suffered injuries requiring hospitalization. Police placed the suspect under arrest at the hospital and ordered blood tests without a warrant. The Schmerber court considered two factors compelling. First, blood alcohol breaks down over time, meaning that time is limited after an arrest to collect evidence of intoxication. Second, the need to transport the suspect to the hospital further limited the time police could seek a warrant for blood evidence. These circumstances, the court held, constituted "special facts" that could lead to a reasonable belief that critical evidence was in imminent danger of destruction. Id. at 770-71, McNeely, 358 S.W.3d at 69-70. McNeely's case did not present such "special facts," as the only factor affecting the risk of destruction of evidence was the time required to obtain a warrant.

Missouri argued to the U.S. Supreme Court that the metabolism of alcohol by the human body, causing its gradual dissipation in the bloodstream, is by itself a sufficient "special fact" to justify a warrantless search. According to coverage of oral arguments by the New York Times, the justices seemed hesitant to create a blanket rule allowing law enforcement to draw blood from suspects. Chief Justice John Roberts reportedly called the prospect of warrantless searches with hypodermic needles a "pretty scary image." A lawyer for the state argued that, while breath tests are less intrusive, police generally cannot force a suspect to blow hard enough into the machine to get an accurate reading. The main question for the justices appeared to be whether most police around the country had the ability to obtain a warrant before the suspect's body metabolizes the alleged alcohol.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of Texas defendants, making certain that law enforcement and the courts abide by all the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your legal matter, contact us online or at (432) 687-5157.

More Blog Posts:

Federal Judge Approves Warrantless Hidden Video Surveillance in Drug Case, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 26, 2012

Texas Appellate Court Rules that Police Officer Did Not Violate Defendant's Fourth Amendment Rights by Shining a Flashlight into His Car, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 16, 2012

Use of Unmanned Drones by Law Enforcement Raises Fourth Amendment Concerns, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 5, 2012

Photo credit: puravida from morguefile.com.