May 15, 2013

SCOTUS Upholds Warrant Requirement for Blood-Draws

In January 9, the US Supreme Court was presented with a straightforward question:   can a law enforcement officer legally obtain a non-consensual and warrantless blood sample from a drunk driver under the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement based upon the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream?

The simple answer – NO.  However, we all know that the law is never that simple.

Last month, SCOTUS decided Missouri v. McNeely, holding that the natural metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream does not present a per se exigency categorically justifying a warrantless, nonconsensual blood test in all drunk-driving cases.

The High Court ruled that exceptions for exigency in this context require a case-by-case analysis, based on the “totality of the circumstances” to determine if the government could have obtained a warrant “within a reasonable amount of time.”  Also, a legitimate inquiry is whether securing a warrant “produce unacceptable delay” in light of the exigency of the dissipating alcohol levels in the arrestee’s blood.

So what does all this mean for the driving public?  And how does a police officer know when they need a warrant to conduct a blood draw following a drunk driving arrest? 

Here is some guidance offered by the McNeely Court:

[I]n a situation in which the warrant process will not significantly increase the delay before the blood test is conducted because an officer can take steps to secure a warrant while the suspect is being transported to a medical facility by another officer, . . there would be no plausible justification for an exception to the warrant requirement.

Hence, the Court disagreed with the State of Missouri’s argument that an exigency necessarily exists in any alcohol-related blood test given because that blood-alcohol content rapidly diminishes with time.  SCOTUS agreed, however, that significantly delaying a blood test to obtain a warrant would, "negatively affect the probative value of the results." 

Therefore, it is safe to say that when obtaining a warrant is impractical, the blood testing may well merit an exigency exception, and a blood sample secured without a warrant will be admissible evidence in the drunk driving case.   

Here are the take-aways from this case:

§  No automatic exigency due to the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood-stream;
§  Police still must obtain warrants prior to seizing biological samples; and
§  Bona fide exigent circumstances will justify warrantless blood draws.

In sum, McNeely’s impact on Michigan law, where warrants for blood draws are the norm, is minimal.  Nonetheless, some believe that the holding in Missouri v. McNeely can be used as a sword to attack the implied consent laws –where even refusing to provide a biological sample to police as a driver is a separate offense.  Implied consent laws have been adopted by all 50 States. 


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Sean Valjean said...

Wow this is big news to me. I was talking to a dui lawyer in Calgary who seemed convinced that this would not happen.