United States Supreme Court Rules on Warrantless DUI Blood Draws

Jun 13, 2013

The United States Supreme Court recently ruled that the natural dissipation of alcohol in blood alone does not constitute exigent circumstances per se to justify a warrantless blood draw in DUI cases where the suspect does not consent. Without a warrant or consent from the suspected drunk driver, a blood draw is a violation of the driver’s Fourth Amendment right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. Prior to this decision, Missouri v. McNeely, police officers in California were generally not required to obtain a warrant in order to draw blood for measuring blood-alcohol content in drunk-driving cases.

In this landmark case, Missouri v. McNeely, Tyler McNeely was pulled over on the grounds of suspicion of driving under the influence. After refusing twice to take a breathalyzer, he was taken to a hospital where the police ordered his blood drawn without his consent or a warrant. The officer had not made an attempt to obtain a warrant because he thought that Missouri law did not require it.

The opinion by Justice Sonia Sotomayor returned to the 1966 Supreme Court decision of Schmerber v. California, where the Court held that a person’s blood is protected under the Fourth Amendment. However, the ruling provided an exception for warrantless blood draws where there were “exigent circumstances” in drunk-driving cases. Without a concrete definition of what constituted exigent circumstances, law enforcement officers were left to their own discretion in interpreting this element.

Although the state of Missouri argued that the dissipation of alcohol in the blood stream resulted in valuable evidence being lost creating exigency to justify the blood draw, the Supreme Court disagreed for several reasons. First, the Court concluded that in most cases, there is ample time to request and receive a warrant, especially if there is more than one officer involved in the DUI investigation or available at the scene. Second, the dissipation of blood occurs in a predictable manner, which can be calculated based on an individual’s physical characteristics like gender, height, and weight.

“In those drunk-driving investigations where police officers can reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample can be drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so,” Sotomayor wrote.

Currently, there are electronic search warrant systems in place, in which a search warrant can be obtained in about one hour. This is roughly the same amount of time it may take for the officer to transport a suspect to a hospital and order a blood draw. The McNeely decision will not necessarily prevent blood draws from occurring at every refusal nor reduce the number of DUI arrests, but it will ensure that law enforcement officers follow procedural guidelines prior to making a DUI arrest. This not only protects citizens from unreasonable arrests at the sole discretion of law enforcement officers, but it will also protect those law enforcement officers from claims of unlawful arrests.

As a result of this decision, Jayne Law Group, P.C. is presently, and will continue to, challenge all warrantless, non-consensual blood draws in DUI cases, through motions to suppress. See: www.jaynelawgroup.com

The case is: Missouri v. McNeely, Docket 11-1425 (April 17, 2013).

Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966)