Law Offices of Tim Powers, Denton, Texas
Police in many cases need a search warrant before forcing drunken driving
suspects to have blood drawn, the U.S. Supreme Court said in a ruling
that boosts privacy rights on the road.
The justices today rejected Missouri’s contention that police should
never have to seek judicial approval. The state argued that officers can’t
spare the time given how quickly alcohol dissipates in the bloodstream.
Writing for the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said police need to seek
a warrant when they can do so “without significantly undermining
the efficacy of the search.”
The ruling was narrower than it might have been, stopping short of declaring
a categorical rule that police need a warrant. Sotomayor said that “cases
will arise when anticipated delays in obtaining a warrant will justify
a blood test without judicial authorization.”
Even so, the ruling will have day-to-day implications across the country.
More than 1.4 million people are arrested each year in the U.S. for driving
under the influence, according to FBI statistics. About half the 50 states
already have laws barring nonconsensual blood draws in the absence of
The court splintered in its reasoning in the case. Only three justices
— Scalia, Ginsburg and Kagan — joined the entirety of Sotomayor’s opinion.
The defendant in the case, Tyler G. McNeely, was pulled over for speeding
in 2010 by a state highway patrolman in southeast Missouri. McNeely failed
field sobriety tests and refused to take a breath test. The officer then
took McNeely to a nearby hospital, where a technician drew blood over
the handcuffed suspect’s objection.
McNeely sought to block use of the blood test at trial. The high court
ruling means prosecutors will have to use other evidence in their case.
Missouri argued that getting a nighttime warrant in Cape Girardeau County,
where McNeely was arrested, takes an average of two hours, by which point
a person’s blood alcohol level may have dropped below the legal
limit. The Obama administration backed Missouri in the case.
The state said alcohol typically dissipates in the bloodstream at a rate
of 0.015 to 0.020 percentage points an hour. The limit in Missouri is
Missouri was seeking to exempt drunken driving cases from the normal rule
that police must get a warrant for intrusive bodily searches.
McNeely’s lawyers said police in Cape Girardeau County often get
warrants in less than half an hour. McNeely’s team also contended
that modern technology expedites the process in much of the country, as
officers file telephone or electronic applications with a judge.
McNeely’s lawyers pointed to Missouri’s “implied consent”
law, which says drivers who refuse a blood or breath test automatically
lose their license for a year. McNeely contended that law suggests that
drivers have the right to refuse a blood test. All 50 states have implied-consent
laws in some form.
McNeely, who had been convicted of drunken driving twice before, was charged
with a felony that might have subjected him to four years in prison.
Top State Court
The blood test showed McNeely had a 0.154 percent blood alcohol level.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors couldn’t use the
test at trial, saying officers typically must seek a warrant before forcing
a suspect to have blood drawn.
The Supreme Court had last ruled on the issue in 1966. In that decision,
the court said the warrant requirement didn’t apply in the case
of a man whose blood was drawn in a hospital about two hours after he
was involved in an automobile accident. The court said that case involved
The high court in other rulings has said police don’t need a warrant
in situations of “exigent circumstances,” as when evidence
is about to be destroyed.
The case is Missouri v. McNeely, 11-1425.
If you are seeking aggressive criminal representation by an experienced
criminal defense attorney for your Denton County DWI case or arrest in
Denton County, contact the offices of Tim Powers today. There is no charge
or obligation for the initial consultation.940.580.2899
*Tim Powers is an attorney licensed to practice law by the Supreme Court
of Texas. Nothing in this article is intended to be legal advice. For
legal advice about any specific legal question you should directly consult
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