U.S. Supreme Court Rules Routine Blood Tests For Suspected Drunk Drivers Unconstitutional

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion in the case of Missouri v. McNeely holding that police are not permitted to force individuals suspected of driving while intoxicated to submit to a blood test without first obtaining a warrant.

In McNeely, the defendant, McNeely, was stopped by a Missouri police officer for speeding and committing a lane violation. Upon making contact with McNeely, the officer observed that McNeely’s eyes were red and glassy and breath smelled of alcohol. McNeely performed poorly on field sobriety tests and refused to submit to a portable breathalyzer test. Chemical testing showed that McNeely’s blood alcohol content was above the legal limit and he was charged with driving while intoxicated.

McNeely moved to suppress the results of the blood test, contending that the warrantless blood draw violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The trial court agreed, holding that there was no exigency that justified the warrantless taking of McNeely’s blood.

On appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed based on Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757, wherein the Supreme Court held that a warrantless blood test would be justified under circumstances where the officer “might reasonably have believed that he was confronted with an emergency, in which the delay necessary to obtain a warrant, under the circumstances, threatened ‘the destruction of evidence.”

In applying the Schmerber analysis to McNeely’s case, the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that it was a routine DWI investigation where no factors other than the natural dissipation of blood alcohol suggested that there was an emergency excusing the warrant requirement.

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to answer the question, “Does the “natural metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream presents a per se exigency that justifies an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement for nonconsensual blood testing in all drunk-driving cases[?]” Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Sotomayor authored an opinion affirming the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court.

Missouri argued that, because the amount of alcohol in the blood dissipated with time, police needed to be able to conduct warrantless blood draws to preserve evidence of intoxication. The Court recognized that, although the body’s natural metabolic processes in a person’s blood begins to dissipate once the alcohol is fully absorbed and continues to decline until the alcohol is eliminated.”

However, the Court ultimately rejected the State’s position, concluding that, although “some circumstances will make obtaining a warrant impractical such that the dissipation of alcohol from the bloodstream will support an exigency justifying a properly conducted warrantless blood test” that does not mean the Court should depart from “careful case-by-case assessment of exigency and adopt the categorical rule proposed by [Missouri].”

The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending the Constitutional rights of individuals that have been accused of DWI or DUI. If you or someone you know has been charged with a DWI or DUI in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.