Are Warrantless Searches for Blood Tests at DUI Stops Constitutional?

Did you know that the current state of drinking and driving laws across the country hinges upon the outcome of one landmark case that is presently before the Supreme Court? The case is Missouri v. McNeely, which addresses the issue of whether conducting a warrantless search for a blood sample without the consent of a suspected drunk driver violates Fourth Amendment rights.

The Fourth Amendment 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, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The case began in 2010, when Tyler McNeely was pulled over in Cape Girardeau, Missouri for speeding. As police approached his vehicle, they suspected he was drunk and instructed him to perform several field sobriety tests. After he failed the field sobriety tests and refused the breathalyzer, the police officer took him to the hospital. At the hospital, the police officer proceeded to have McNeely’s blood drawn without his permission and without a warrant.

The case eventually wound up in the Missouri Supreme Court where the judge ruled that the blood sample drawn was unconstitutional because it was taken without McNeely’s consent and without a warrant. At the time, the police officer explained he had read that the “Missouri law was changed to waive the requirement to obtain court-authorization prior to performing a blood test.”

The Missouri Supreme Court based its decision on a 1966 ruling by Justice William Brennan that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant prior to drawing the blood of a suspect if their consent isn’t given, except in some situational circumstances that qualify as an emergency. Brennan wrote: “Search warrants…no less could be required where intrusions into the human body are concerned.”

The McNeely case boils down to whether the diminishing level of alcohol in his blood stream constitutes an emergency that would require a blood test without a warrant. The State of Missouri contends that it is, and appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Blood tests are the gold standard from a scientific standpoint,” said Michael Correll, a Dallas attorney who has done extensive research and written a law review article on drunk driving and blood tests.

Lauren Owens, a research attorney for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association wrote that the Supreme Court’s ruling on the McNeely case might lead to a “dramatic increase in the number of DWI cases supported by blood evidence. ”

The outcome of the McNeely case has the potential to rewrite Ohio law.  According to the Ohio Revised Code § 4511.191, just by getting in your car in the State of Ohio you automatically consent to taking a blood, breath or urine test within a two hour period of being stopped for driving under the influence. The police officer initiating the stop also has the authority to choose which test you take.

Approximately half of U.S. states allow blood tests to be conducted without a search warrant in drunk driving stops. States like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oregon hold that the decreasing level of alcohol in the bloodstream is the type of emergency situation that justifies a blood test without a search warrant.

Public opinion appears to be sharply divided on the question of whether warrantless searches for blood should be permitted during DUI stops, or should law enforcement be required to obtain a warrant before they stick a driver in the arm with a needle.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Missouri v. McNeely by spring.

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