Is a Warrant Needed to Take DUI Blood Tests During Arrests?
Supreme Court justices on Jan. 16, considered if a warrant were needed to draw blood from a suspected drunk driver against his will.
Missouri prosecutors (who were supported by the federal government) were asking the judges to rule that a warrant was not necessary to take blood from a suspected drunk driver. The case was based on the arrest of a driver in Missouri who had been stopped on the highway for speeding.
Tyler B. McNeely, the driver, displayed, “the telltale signs of intoxication — bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and the smell of alcohol on his breath,” according to the Missouri Supreme Court, as quoted by The New York Times. When he failed a sobriety test at the roadside, McNeely was arrested. The driver refused a breath test and was taken to a hospital where he refused to have a blood test.
Nevertheless, the hospital drew his blood, about 25 minutes after he was stopped on the highway. His blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit at 0.15 percent.
The Missouri Supreme Court suppressed this evidence, saying no “exigent circumstances. . .excused the failure to obtain a warrant,” The New York Times wrote. “Warrantless intrusions of the body are not to be undertaken lightly.”
The Supreme Court judges considered a number of sides to the argument.
According to The New York Times, the justices had little appetite for such a “categorical approach.” Instead, they tried to find a “middle ground,” that needed to consider how quickly alcohol dissipates in the blood, the practicalities of drawing blood during an arrest, and the judicial question of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against illegal search and seizure and the right to privacy.
The fact that the alcohol content in blood disintegrates so quickly makes timing an important part of the question. Delay caused by waiting for a warrant could allow the alcohol in the blood to dissipate.
The justices considered how long it takes to issue a warrant. They concluded it varied, sometimes as quickly as 15 to 20 minutes, at other times as long as a couple of hours.
Justice Antonin Scalia argued each case should be considered individually and if would take too long to get a warrant, it would be OK to take the blood. However, Justice Scalia later asked for the opinion of Steven R. Shapiro, from the American Civil Liberties Union, which was representing McNeely. According to The New York Times, Shapiro said, “the privacy safeguards of the Fourth Amendment benefit by having a neutral and detached magistrate review the evidence before the state does something as intrusive as putting a needle in somebody’s arm.”
While it may be important to get a blood test to detect if someone’s alcohol level is over the legal limit, it may be more important to protect a person’s right to privacy and against illegal search and seizure.
Several justices, according to the article, said they were uncomfortable with the “pretty scary image” of government-sanctioned bodily intrusions involving sharp needles.”