Tuesday, October 2, 2012

US Supreme Court to Rule on Warrantless Blood Draws

One of my favorite things to do is read about the criminal cases the US Supreme Court decides to review each year.  While the Court can't rule on the facts of a criminal case, they often will grant certiorari in order to review Constitutional issues that lay within the framework of the case.  Of special concern to me is any cases that involve DWI's, seeing as I handle a large number of those cases.

On September 25th, the Supreme Court announced that they would review the case of Missouri v. McNeely.  This is a case that could have wide reaching implications for anyone who has a driver's license.  The basic facts of the case are that Tyler McNeely was arrested under suspicion of drunk driving.  The arresting officer immediately took McNeely to a nearby hospital in order to get a blood sample from McNeely.  McNeely objected to having his blood drawn, but the officer forcibly took the sample, anyway.

The issue here is whether the officer should have to obtain a warrant to compel the driver to provide a blood sample.  In most states, this is the case.  While implied consent laws revoke drivers' right to refuse a test, they do not revoke one's ability to refuse.  As we've discussed before in this space, you are more than welcome to refuse blood, alcohol, or urine testing at the station, but doing so will result in an additional criminal charge being added to your rap sheet.  Under existing laws, you can only be compelled to have blood drawn if you were involved in an accident that led to damage to property, bodily harm, or the death of another person.  Absent those special circumstances or other exigent circumstances (such as the person suspected of DWI being unconscious and being unable to consent to such testing), law enforcement cannot compel you to give a sample for testing without first obtaining a warrant signed by a judge.  As you can imagine, finding a judge who's willing to read and sign a warrant at 3 am is a difficult task.  For obvious reasons, law enforcement officers would love to have the opportunity to forcibly take blood samples from suspected drunk drivers without first obtaining a warrant.

The crux of the issue is the consideration of the 4th Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.  Determining whether a search and seizure is unreasonable is a balancing test that weighs the level of intrusion towards the suspect against the benefit to the State.  Courts have held that for bodily fluids, tissues, or other internal materials to be obtained absent a warrant, the State must show that there were exigent circumstances that required immediate action.  They must prove that waiting for a warrant would render any subsequent search and seizure moot.  This means that the average DWI offender would not be subject to a warrant-less seizure of blood in order to obtain a BAC under the current precedent.

If the Court finds in favor of Missouri in McNeely, this standard may be completely thrown out.  It would allow states to allow their law enforcement officers to forcibly take blood from anyone suspected of DWI.  This would largely do away with gross misdemeanor refusal charges in Minnesota, but would result in a pretty significant infringement on the expectation of privacy held by the citizens of the state.

Something to consider, however, is that no state would be forced to adopt the Supreme Court's ruling in McNeely if they find in favor of Missouri.  While states cannot enact laws, legislation, or court rulings that limit the rights of people more than federal laws, legislation, and court rulings, they can expand the rights of citizens beyond federal guidelines.  However, Supreme Court rulings usually carry quite a bit of weight in state courts, meaning that judges may be hard pressed to rule against the State in similar cases moving forward.

If you are concerned about the restricting and limiting of individual rights by the federal government, this decision will certainly be one to keep your eye on.  Ultimately, I have a hard time believing the Supreme Court will rule in favor of Missouri and allow law enforcement to forcibly take blood samples from unwilling suspects without first getting a warrant.  Law enforcement has been granted a number of exceptions to the warrant requirement in the past, with most of them revolving around the idea of expediting the search and seizure process in situations where time is of the essence.  Alcohol testing does need to be done as quickly as possible to guard against the BAC falling too far below the level it was at when the suspect was operating the vehicle.  However, most studies show that alcohol in the blood dissipates at a rate of .015-.020 percent per hour.  As such, Minnesota law currently holds that a person can only be charged with DWI if their BAC is measured within 2 hours of their initial traffic stop.  If this ruling is overturned, law enforcement will have a much easier time getting samples from suspects, which will have a huge effect on your rights when pulled over for a traffic violation.

I will give updates on this case when any new information comes out.

As always, the content of this blog is for entertainment purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice, nor does reading this blog create an attorney/client relationship between the author and the reader.  If you or a loved one are dealing with a DWI charge and are looking for legal advice or representation, contact a Minnesota DWI Attorney as soon as possible.

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