Thursday, April 18, 2013

Supreme Court agrees that warrantless DUI blood draw illegal, but still unanswered questions.

The Supreme Court has released its opinion in Missouri v. McNeely. This is a case about a Missouri officer's decision to conduct a warrantless blood draw in a DUI arrest. Unfortunately, the four separate opinions issued by the justices raise more questions than they answer. The warrantless blood draw here was found to be a violation by the Missouri's highest court and this finding was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The biggest takeaway from the Court’s majority and two supporting opinions is that in the future every case will be judged on its own merits. While this provides substantial flexibility to both law enforcement officials and judges, it fails to create a bright line rule that officers might rely on when out making traffic stops. The only thing clear from the Court’s Wednesday ruling is that none of the justices were willing to go so far as to say that officers investigating drunk driving cases must always obtain a warrant before conducting a blood draw. Officers are instead left to conclude that getting a warrant is the best outcome and the only way to ensure that a drunk driving arrest is not later tossed out of court beacuse of a constitutional concerns.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, found that the natural dissipation of alcohol in a defendant’s system does not serve as sufficient justification to ignore constitutional warrant requirements. Justice Sotomayor wrote that officers should generally get a warrant before conducting such a test. Emergencies that permit a deviation from this general rule can only be decided on a case-by-case basis, though officers should be careful and understand that these circumstances are rare and that most cases allow for plenty of time to obtain a warrant.

In this case, the majority sided with Missouri’s Supreme Court, which threw out a warrantless blood test obtained after an officer puled over Tyler McNeely on suspicion of drunk driving. Justice Sotomayor wrote that though there would be some cases that could arise where delays may justify a blood test without judicial authorization, she did not believe that this was often the case and that a small delay would not seriously hamper the ability of the government to prosecute drunk drivers in the future.

In a curious alliance, Justice Sotomayor had the backing of Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Kagan. Justice Thomas was the only justice to completely dissent, saying that he believed the dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream created an emergency that did not require a warrant.

Chief Justice Roberts agreed with the outcome of the case, but criticized the vagueness of the majority’s opinion. Robert’s wrote that a police officer reading the opinion would have no idea what the Fourth Amendment requires of him. Though his critique was stinging, Roberts failed to come up with a better solution. Roberts’ rule stated that if there is time to secure a warrant then the arresting officer must secure one. If, however, an officer can reasonably conclude there is not enough time to secure a warrant without compromising the results of the test, then a warrantless blood draw can proceed. Clear as mud.

To read the full opinion, click

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