Supreme Court seems unlikely to let police order blood tests for drunk-driving suspects

Washington Post
January 10, 2013

 

Blood drawing - You're Under Arrest!

You’re Under Arrest! Just be glad that cop’s not drawing blood from you with his baton instead, dear citizen.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed unlikely to allow police to routinely force suspected drunk drivers to give a blood sample without the officers at least trying to obtain a warrant from a judge.

Justices across the ideological spectrum seemed to recoil during oral arguments from what Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. described as the “pretty scary image of somebody restrained, and, you know, a representative of the state approaching them with a needle.”

There seemed to be little, if any, support for the proposition that the usual constitutional protections that require a warrant for searches do not apply in drunk-driving arrests. Missouri, backed by the Obama administration, argued that a suspect’s dissipating blood-alcohol content meant that, in effect, evidence was being lost and thus drawing blood should not require consent or a judge’s order.

That argument drew fire almost immediately.

“How can it be reasonable to forgo the Fourth Amendment in a procedure as intrusive as a needle going into someone’s body?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked. The justice, interestingly, is a diabetic who has given herself daily shots of insulin since childhood.

Justice Antonin Scalia immediately signaled that he considers a blood test different from other procedures the government may require.

“Why don’t you force him to take the breathalyzer test, instead of forcing him to have a needle shoved . . . in his arm?” Scalia asked John N. Koester Jr., the Missouri prosecutor presenting the case for his state. Koester replied that a breathalyzer requires the suspect’s participation.

For most of the hour-long argument, the justices seemed to be debating among themselves what emergency circumstances — an inability to contact a magistrate late at night, for instance — might allow taking blood from an uncooperative suspect.

The case comes from rural Cape Girardeau County, where in the early-morning hours of Oct. 3, 2010, Missouri State Highway Patrol Cpl. Mark Winder pulled over Tyler G. McNeely. McNeely, with slurred speech and alcohol on his breath, failed a field sobriety test and twice refused to take a breathalyzer test.

Winder arrested him and, on the way to jail, stopped by a hospital. After McNeely refused to submit to a blood test, Winder ordered a phlebotomist to draw blood anyway. Winder did not attempt to obtain a warrant because he said he thought Missouri law did not require it because of recent changes.

The Missouri Supreme Court unanimously disagreed and said the blood test could not be used.

Courts nationwide are divided about whether a 1966 Supreme Court ruling created an emergency exception to the warrant requirement for taking blood or whether ”special facts” must be present to make a warrant unnecessary.

Koester and Assistant Solicitor General Nicole A. Saharsky argued that the rapid dissipation of alcohol was enough to relieve law enforcement from the warrant requirement.

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