DUI Blood Tests, the Fourth Amendment and the Missouri v. McNeely Supreme Court Case

The Fourth Amendment gives "the right of the people to be secure in their person, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," and though it seems straightforward and clear enough, the U.S. Supreme Court has spent decades specifying what constitutes a violation of this right and what doesn’t. The most recent case in this venture, Missouri v. McNeely, centers around whether it is a violation of an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights to forcibly draw blood from an alleged DUI offender after they refuse to submit to alcohol testing without a warrant or directive from the courts.

The controversy in this case arises out of strongly divided interpretation of the Supreme Court precedent of Schmerber v. California. In this case, the court determined that a law enforcement officer may forcibly draw blood without a warrant if "special facts" were present that indicated exigent circumstances. The exigent circumstances in this case were that there was a severe accident, and between investigating the accident and taking the alleged offender to the hospital, the officer did not have time to get a warrant for the blood sample before the evidence of alcohol had disappeared from the bloodstream.

However, in Missouri v. McNeely there were no such exigent circumstances except for the fact that the percentage of alcohol in a person’s blood begins to lessen shortly after the person quits drinking. The patrolman pulled over Tyler McNeely for driving 11 miles over the speed limit, and subsequently had reasonable cause to believe that McNeely was guilty of DUI upon McNeely’s failure of field sobriety tests. After McNeely refused a breath test, the officer drove him to a hospital where he also refused the blood test. Since the officer had recently read material about implied consent, he believed a warrant was not necessary for a force draw and ordered the blood test without even pursuing a warrant.

McNeely’s levels were nearly double the legal limit, so he was taken to court for DUI. However, the trial judge threw out the BAC evidence, claiming the forced blood draw was against McNeely’s constitutional rights – a decision the Missouri Supreme Court upheld. The prosecution, though, continues to contend that the chemical elimination of the DUI evidence in the blood is an issue urgent enough to justify a forced blood withdrawal without a warrant.

The issue of whether or not this naturally-occurring elimination of evidence is enough of a exigent circumstance all by itself to allow the precedent of Schmerber v. California to apply is what is up for debate in the Supreme Court case. The prosecution argues that several courts throughout the United States have already ruled that the dissipation of evidence from the defendant’s bloodstream is indeed enough of an exigent circumstance to warrant forced blood withdrawal without the court’s permission.

McNeely’s representatives – lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union – contend that the forced obtainment of evidence actually violates the precedent because there were not circumstances present to prevent the patrolman to at least consider or attempt getting a warrant. Additionally, there was other evidence available in the case that the prosecution could use besides the blood test.

McNeely’s lawyers also argue that there is not enough scientific evidence or expert testimony to determine that alcohol disappears from the blood fast enough to excuse a force withdrawal, and that even by the prosecution’s standard of alcohol disappearing from the bloodstream at an average of .0165%, it would have taken over four hours for the blood evidence to dissipate enough to prevent violation of the legal limit. Since many warrants can be obtained electronically in minutes nowadays, McNeely’s lawyers contend that the slow eroding of evidence in a alleged DUI offender’s blood is not exigent enough on its own to permit the lack of a warrant.

A decision hasn’t been reached yet, but according to Lyle Denniston, reporter for SCOTUSBlog, the justices do seem to be agreeing on a few things. The first is that the police are probably going to have to at least attempt to obtain a warrant, despite the fact that according to the precedent of Schmerber v. California, it is not always required. The justices also seem to agree that inserting a needle into a person to obtain a blood sample is a procedure that would be invasive if performed by the government without the alleged offender’s consent.

Additionally, the Supreme Court seems to agree that the premise of alcohol disappearing from the blood stream is not an exigent circumstance severe enough by itself to permit warrantless forced blood draws, and that the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment should not be simply set aside for all DUI cases where the officer decides to take a blood sample. Hopefully, the final decision will reflect these assumed agreements and protect an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights from the whims of a police officer who wants a blood sample in an alleged DUI case. Drivers should retain a right of refusal to submit to DUI testing in Columbus.

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