Supreme Court Reviews the Constitutionality of Blood Tests for Suspected Drunk Drivers

The United States Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a case in which Missouri prosecutors asked the Court to rule that warrants are not necessary to collect blood samples from individuals suspected of driving while intoxicated. Given that alcohol can break down in the bloodstream, time is often of the essence when collecting evidence of intoxication. The Court ruled back in the 1960’s that police may only draw blood without a warrant when a suspect is involved in an injury accident. The present case, Missouri v. McNeely, No. 11-1425, asks the court to expand that ruling to cover any suspected DWI. Setting aside the arguments over constitutional rights regarding searches and seizures, this is an important case for the personal injury bar, as it may substantially affect how police collect evidence in DWI cases, and therefore what evidence may be available in a civil claim for damages.

Police arrested the defendant, Tyler McNeely, for DWI after McNeely reportedly displayed the “tell-tale signs of intoxication,” such as “bloodshot eyes” and “slurred speech.” Missouri v. McNeely, 358 S.W.3d 65, 68 (Mo. 2012). After McNeely refused to consent to a blood test or an alcohol breath test, the arresting officer, who did not have a warrant, instructed a medical professional to draw a blood sample. McNeely moved to suppress the results of the blood test at his trial, arguing that the officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search or seizure. The trial court granted the motion to suppress.

The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966). The U.S. Supreme Court made a limited exception in that case to the warrant requirement to draw blood, based on the need to gather evidence in the aftermath of an automobile accident that caused injury. The Court held that the situation in that case presented “special facts” that created an emergency situation risking the destruction of key evidence. Id. at 770-71, McNeely, 358 S.W.3d at 69. The Missouri Supreme Court found that no such “special facts” existed in McNeely’s case. The prosecution appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The question presented to the U.S. Supreme Court by the state of Missouri was whether the mere fact that alcohol dissipates in the human body over time constitutes “special facts” sufficient to allow collection of a blood sample without a suspect’s consent. According to a summary of the oral argument by the New York Times, the justices seemed to have “little enthusiasm” for allowing such a broad exception to the requirement of a warrant. The arguments therefore focused on a balance between the needs of gathering evidence in a criminal investigation, considering the usual course of a traffic stop and the realities of human metabolism, and the rights of people under the Fourth Amendment and Supreme Court precedent. The Court may not render its decision for several more months.

The attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen help people in the Washington, DC area recover their just compensation when they have suffered injuries in automobile accidents caused by the negligent or unlawful conduct of others. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949.

More Blog Posts:

Washington DC Car Accident Lawsuit Alleges Direct Negligence and Respondeat Superior: Lewis-Shephard v. Burch, et al, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, November 9, 2012
Washington DC Survey Shows Increase in Distracted Driving, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, May 22, 2012
Washington Area Car Crashes Kill at Least Eight In Less than 48 Hours, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, August 13, 2011

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