Supreme Court strikes down warrantless blood tests in DUI cases

By Stephen C. Webster
Wednesday, April 17, 2013 13:28 EDT
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Police following up on drunk driving investigations will no longer be able to draw their suspect’s blood without a court order authorizing the search, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.

In a 5-4 decision, with Justices Sonya Sotomayor, Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy and Elena Kagan making up the majority, the court ruled that the natural expiration of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute “destruction of evidence,” which would otherwise give officers cause for a warrantless search.

The decision in Missouri v. McNeely (PDF) springs from a DUI arrest in which an officer claimed that blood was drawn without a warrant or the suspect’s consent because the suspect’s liver was in the process of destroying evidence of a crime. The Missouri Supreme Court disagreed, ruling in favor of the arrested man’s contention that the search was unconstitutional and violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

“As an initial matter, States have a broad range of legal tools to enforce their drunk-driving laws and to secure BAC [blood-alcohol content] evidence without undertaking warrantless noncon­sensual blood draws,” Justice Sotomayor wrote for the court’s majority. “For example, all 50 States have adopted implied consent laws that require motorists, as a condition of operating a motor vehicle within the State, to consent to BAC testing if they are arrested or otherwise detained on suspicion of a drunk-driving offense.”

“Such laws impose significant consequences when a motorist withdraws consent; typically the motorist’s driver’s license is immediately suspended or revoked, and most States allow the motorist’s refusal to take a BAC test to be used as evidence against him in a subsequent criminal prosecution,” she added, noting there is “no evidence” to suggest restricting such blood draws has impeded enforcement efforts.

“We hold that in drunk-driving investigations, the natu­ral dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute an exigency in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant,” the court’s majority opinion concluded.

Reacting to the ruling, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Legal Director Steven Shapiro praised the court’s agreement with justices in Missouri who clung to the integrity of the Fourth Amendment. “We know from experience that drunk-driving laws can be strictly enforced without abandoning constitutional rights,” he said in an advisory. “Today’s decision appropriately recognizes what half the states have already demonstrated — that maintaining highway safety does not require sacrificing personal privacy.”


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Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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