US Supreme Court holds police need warrants for blood draws

On April 17, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Missouri v. McNeely, a case dealing with the question of whether police officers need warrants before taking blood samples from those suspected of driving under the influence who refuse to submit to chemical tests. The Court held that there is no automatic exemption from the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement when police are seeking blood samples from DUI suspects.

Blood test thrown out by state court

The case before the Court arose from an incident that occurred after a man was pulled over for speeding in 2010. The police officer reported that the driver displayed “telltale signs of intoxication” such as slurred speech, bloodshot eyes and the smell of alcohol on his breath. The officer conducted field sobriety tests and then arrested the driver for suspicion of DUI. The driver refused to take a breath test, so the officer took the man to the hospital and had hospital staff draw the man’s blood. The blood test, which was taken about 25 minutes after police stopped the driver, showed the man’s blood alcohol concentration to be about 0.15 percent.

At his trial, the man argued that the blood test should be suppressed, as the police officer did not get a warrant to draw his blood. He argued that a blood draw is a search for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment, and there were no “exigent circumstances” in this case that would excuse the police from needing a warrant to conduct the search. The state argued DUI blood draws are always exempt from the warrant requirement since the evidence decays so quickly. The state court agreed with the driver and suppressed the blood test evidence.

U.S. Supreme Court affirms warrant requirement

In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the state court’s decision. The fact that alcohol in a person’s bloodstream dissipates over time does not automatically excuse police officers from needing to get a warrant before drawing a person’s blood.

The Court held that whether it is reasonable to obtain a blood sample from a person suspected of DUI without a warrant needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis, based on the totality of the circumstances. One of the factors that police officers need to consider is how problematic it is to obtain a warrant within a time frame that allows police to collect reliable evidence. The court noted that advances in technology have removed impediments to getting a warrant quickly, such as electronic warrant applications, direct telephone calls from police to judges and even emailing warrant applications to judges’ iPads.

Talk to an attorney

Authorities in Maryland and across the U.S. take DUI offenses very seriously and will go to great lengths to prosecute such cases, as the warrantless blood draws demonstrate. If you have been charged with DUI, speak with a skilled DUI defense attorney who can help defend your rights.