The United States Supreme Court this week struck down law enforcement’s ability to forcibly draw blood from a drunk driving suspect without a warrant, absent some articulable exigent circumstance. Police have long relied on the argument that the dissipation of the alcohol from the blood stream created an exigency that allowed them to forcibly draw blood from a suspected drunk driver to avoid the loss of evidence. Continuing what seems to be a recent trend toward strengthening the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court says they are mistaken.
A defendant was stopped by police at about 2:08 in the morning on a Missouri highway because the vehicle he was driving was speeding, swerving, and crossing over the median line of the highway. The police officers noticed several objective symptoms of alcohol intoxication. The defendant had bloodshot watery eyes, he was unsteady on his feet, and he smelled of alcohol. He performed poorly on a series of field sobriety tests, and he refused a portable handheld alcohol screening device test. The defendant also admitted to the officers that he consumed “a couple of beers” earlier at a bar. The defendant was arrested for drunk driving. While being driven to the police station, the defendant informed the arresting officer of his intention to refuse to provide a breath sample at the station. The officer changed course and took the defendant to a near-by hospital, where the defendant also refused to submit to a blood draw. Without seeking a warrant, the officer instructed the hospital staff to forcibly draw the defendant’s blood over his objection. Subsequent analysis of the blood revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.154, far in excess of Missouri’s 0.08 limit.
In court, the defendant argued that the result of his blood analysis was inadmissible because the blood was drawn despite his refusal and without a warrant, in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. The trial court agreed, and the prosecution appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals stated an intention to reverse, but instead transferred the case directly to the Missouri Supreme Court. The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the decision of the trial court in excluding the blood test results from evidence, and the prosecution appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
The United States Supreme Court also confirmed the decision made by the trial court and found the police had violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment Rights by forcibly drawing his blood without a warrant, or any recognized exception. The prosecution argued, as they always have, that the body’s continual dissipation of alcohol from the blood stream creates an exigency requiring the police to obtain a blood sample before the evidence was gone. While the Supreme Court recognized that the liver begins to dissipate alcohol from the body shortly after drinking stops, they held that alone was not enough to create an exigency sufficient to justify a warrantless invasion into a defendant’s body to obtain evidence. According to the Supreme Court, the determination of exigency must be made on a case by case basis by evaluating the totality of the circumstances.
In a 1966 case, the United States Supreme Court upheld a warrantless forced blood draw when the defendant was hospitalized as a result of his injuries in an alleged drunk driving crash, and the police arrested him at the hospital. The delay caused by the hospitalization created enough of a delay in obtaining a blood sample that exigency existed in that case. However, in the case of a routine drunk driving arrest, the body’s dissipation of alcohol from the blood alone is not enough. The Supreme Court also took into consideration technological advances since their 1966 decision. Police are now able to obtain warrants much more expeditiously by telephone than was possible at that time. This reduces the risk of the body naturally eliminating the evidence before a warrant can be obtained.
While a California defendant who refuses a blood or breath test will likely suffer a one year suspension of his driver license as a result of informed consent laws, the police can no longer force a warrantless blood draw based solely on the body’s natural elimination of alcohol.
Based on Missouri v. McNeely