US Supreme Court to hear case on suspected drunk drivers' 4th Amendment rights

During this term, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that calls into question our most basic Fourth Amendment rights. The high court's decision to hear the case comes after much confusion amongst state courts regarding the issue at hand. The Supreme Court's decision will answer the question - is it lawful for a police officer to obtain a blood sample from a suspected drunk driver without the driver's consent and without a warrant?

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." The amendment goes on to provide that probable cause is necessary to support the issuance of a warrant to conduct a search or seizure.

Missouri v. McNeely

The case before the Supreme Court, Missouri v. McNeely, arose when McNeely was pulled over by a law enforcement officer for speeding. The police officer believed the driver was exhibiting signs of being under the influence of alcohol, and arrested McNeely for driving while intoxicated.

While the police officer was en route to the county jail with McNeely, he asked McNeely if he would consent to a breath test upon arrival at the jail. McNeely indicated he would refuse. The police officer then changed course and took McNeely to a local hospital. The law enforcement officer asked McNeely to agree to provide a blood sample and read him an implied consent form. McNeely refused. The police officer then instructed a hospital employee to take a blood sample.

The police officer never received McNeely's consent to draw the blood sample nor did he make any efforts whatsoever to obtain a warrant. According to information provided in the case, it typically takes around two hours to obtain a warrant in that particular county.

After being heard in lower state courts, the Missouri Supreme Court determined that McNeely's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures was violated by the "nonconsensual and warrantless blood draw."

Does an exception to the warrant requirement make such a blood draw lawful?

State courts across the country have decided this same issue in many different ways.

At the foundation of much of the confusion is a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1966, Schmerber v. California. In that case, the Supreme Court held that, under the particular circumstances of the case, a warrantless and nonconsensual blood draw was not a violation of the individual's Fourth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court took great efforts, however, to emphasize that its decision was only based on the "special facts" of the case.

In Schmerber, the individual at the wheel was involved in an accident and two hours passed before a law enforcement official was able to request a blood test. The Supreme Court found that because so much time had passed in this particular case, the police officer did not have sufficient time to obtain a warrant before ordering the test.

Since then, some law enforcement agencies and courts have argued that the exigent circumstances involved in a suspected drunk driving case always permit nonconsensual, warrantless blood draws. In reality, alcohol dissipates in the blood stream at a rate of .015 to .020 percent per hour. In many cases, a law enforcement official would have sufficient time to obtain a warrant before ordering the blood draw.

The Supreme Court's decision in this case could have a significant impact on an individual's Fourth Amendment rights. When someone is arrested for driving while intoxicated, consulting with a Twin Cities DWI attorney will ensure a strong defense is established.