U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Warrantless DUI Blood Tests
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday as to whether police should be required to get a search warrant before requiring drunk driving suspects to have blood drawn to determine their blood alcohol level, according to news reports.
In an article appearing in The Seattle Times, Greg Stohr writes for Bloomberg News:
The hourlong argument session produced no clear consensus, as the court sought to balance the needs of police against what Chief Justice John Roberts called the ‘pretty scary image’ of a handcuffed person being stuck with a needle. The case turns on the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches.
Mark Sherman reports for the Associated Press in an article on Northern Colorado 5: “… [J]ustices across the ideological spectrum questioned whether the intrusive procedure of sticking a needle in someone’s arm to draw blood should routinely be done without the approval of a judge.” At the same time, Sherman writes, the judges made clear that they did not want to “unduly delay the collection of blood samples.”
Stohr writes that Justice Anthony Kennedy said those states that require police to get a warrant first “make it work very well,” while Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a diabetic who gives herself insulin injections on a regular basis, said a blood draw was a more serious intrusion into privacy rights than a breath test.
As Sherman notes, Wednesday’s discussion stemmed from the 2010 arrest of Tyler McNeely, in rural Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, in which a state trooper stopped the man’s speeding and swerving car and McNeeley, who had two previous drunken driving convictions, refused to submit to a breath test to measure his blood-alcohol level. After McNeely — whose speech was slurred and who was unsteady on his feet — failed several field sobriety tests, Cpl. Mark Winder of the Missouri State Highway Patrol drove him to a hospital, where a technician drew blood from McNeely, who was in handcuffs and objected to the test, Stohr writes.
Winder chose not to get a warrant for the blood test, Sherman writes. He adds that McNeely’s blood-alcohol contest was .154%, well over the .08% legal limit.
Missouri contends that police need not take the time to get judicial approval for DUI blood tests, because alcohol in the bloodstream dissipates quickly, Stohr writes. That state argued that it can take an average of two hours for police to get a nighttime warrant in Cape Girardeau County, and by that time, a person’s blood alcohol level could have dropped below the legal limit, Stohr writes.
The dispute may have day-to-day implications nationwide. More than 1.4 million people are arrested each year in the United States for driving under the influence, according to FBI statistics. About half the 50 states wouldn’t be directly affected because they have laws barring nonconsensual blood draws in the absence of a warrant, according to court papers filed by Tyler McNeely, the defendant in the case.
Sherman notes that drunk driving is a serious national problem, in which there were more than 10,000 deaths from accidents involving alcohol-impaired drivers in 2010. He writes that McNeely might have had more reason than most people to object to taking the breath and blood tests, as assistant county prosecutor John Koester said McNeely faced a felony charge with a maximum prison term of four years because of his two prior convictions.
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