Supreme Court to rule on necessity of warrant for DUI blood tests

Does the natural metabolism of alcohol provide a sufficient reason for a police officer to force a suspect to submit to a blood alcohol test without first getting a warrant? The United States Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear a case that will decide this issue. Its decision could have a profound effect on the rights of suspects accused of drinking and driving in New York and across the nation.

The case, Missouri v. McNeely, started as a normal traffic stop when a Missouri highway patrol officer pulled over Tyler McNeely for excessive speed. During the stop, the officer said that McNeely's behavior gave him reason to believe that he might be intoxicated. His suspicions aroused, the officer ordered McNeely to step out of the car and take various field sobriety tests, which McNeely failed.

Having failed the sobriety tests, the officer asked McNeely to consent to a blood alcohol test; however, he refused. The officer then drove him to a medical clinic and had a lab technician draw his blood. The results of the test showed that the level of alcohol in McNeely's blood was almost twice the legal limit. McNeely was then charged with DUI.

Before the jury heard the evidence, McNeely's lawyers filed a motion to prevent the results of the blood test from being introduced in court. In support of their motion, they argued that the Fourth Amendment-which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures-bars the use of the blood test results, because the test was conducted without a search warrant.

Prosecutors opposed the motion, arguing that officers were legally justified in ordering the blood test, because in the time it would take for police to get a warrant, more alcohol in McNeely's would be metabolized. They argued that since evidence against McNeely was in essence being destroyed, there was an "exigent circumstance," or an emergency that would justify conducting a search without a warrant under the Fourth Amendment.

The trial judge ruled in favor of McNeely and prohibited prosecutors from introducing the blood test results into evidence. When the prosecution appealed, the appeals court reversed the trial court's decision. McNeely's lawyers appealed and the Missouri Supreme Court reinstated the trial court's ruling. The court held that the metabolism of blood did not constitute an "exigent circumstance," so the Fourth Amendment did not allow the officer to compel a blood test without a warrant.

Courts nationwide have disagreed on whether alcohol metabolism constitutes an exigent circumstance. The Supreme Court is expected to render a decision next spring.

Consult an attorney

Until the court issues its decision, it remains to be seen how it will affect the rights of New York drunk driving suspects. Regardless of the outcome, it is certain that drunk driving will remain a serious offense carrying severe penalties. If you are arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. A knowledgeable attorney can advise you of your rights and work to minimize the negative repercussions resulting from the charges.