Is the dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream enough of an emergency to justify a blood draw without permission or a warrant from a suspected drunk driver? While a Missouri law said yes, the Supreme Court, on April 17, disagreed, striking down that state’s law allowing police to compel drunk-driving suspects to provide blood samples, even absent consent or warrant.
The case, Missouri v. McNeely, was a relatively close one, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor was careful to specify, on behalf of the Court’s 5-4 majority, that although their ruling held that blood draws for suspected drunk drivers without a warrant were not automatically justified, circumstances may still arise that would allow for drawing a suspect’s blood without a warrant or consent. These, however, would need to be decided on a case-by-case basis. The situations would also need to take into account the technological advances that now allow police and prosecutors to obtain warrants quickly, by phone, teleconference, or even e-mail.
In Missouri v. McNeely, the respondent was stopped by a police officer after he was observed speeding and crossing the centerline of the highway. He refused a breath test. Following his refusal, the officer brought him to a hospital and instructed the lab technician to take a blood sample, despite McNeely’s refusal. At no point did the officer try to secure a warrant. At trial, McNeely moved to suppress the blood test results, which revealed his blood alcohol content was well above the legal limit, arguing that the results were obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court agreed and the State Supreme Court affirmed.
The Fourth Amendment right against searches and seizures conducted without a warrant founded on probable cause is one that comes up a great deal in criminal proceedings. The Court has found exceptions to the warrant requirement over the years, one of which is exigent circumstances: when “the exigencies of the situation,” such as the imminent destruction of evidence, make police action, without waiting for a warrant, reasonable.
Schmerber v. California, cited by both the Missouri and US Supreme Courts, illustrates the Court’s finding of just such an exigent circumstance. 384 U.S. 757 (1966). In Schmerber, the petitioner had been at a hospital receiving treatment for an automobile accident; while there, without Schmerber’s consent and without a warrant, a police officer directed a physician to take a blood sample and test his alcohol content. Following the test, Schmerber was arrested for driving under the influence. At the following trial, he objected to the evidence being admitted, as he argued it violated his rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments of the US Constitution. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the officer could reasonably believe he was confronted with an emergency and the imminent destruction of evidence and that the petitioner’s rights had not been violated.
However, clearly not all circumstances are exigent, and McNeely demonstrates the difficulty in making blanket statements about when an emergency situation exists. While not overruling Schmerber, the Court walks a fine line of acknowledging that while blood alcohol content is fleeting by nature, this does not justify a per se law allowing law enforcement officers access to a blood sample without a warrant. Officers may be justified to do so by the situation, but this determination must be made on a case-by-case basis, and where a warrant can reasonably be sought, it must be.
Chief Justice Roberts, on the other hand, concurred in part and dissented in part, as did Justices Breyer and Alito. He pointed out the difficulty with the majority opinion as he saw it: the lack of practical guidance it provides to police officers trying to decide the “case-by-case,” although he agreed that warrants should be sought wherever possible.
While Chief Justice Roberts may be correct that the Court does not draw a bright line distinction in regards to exigent circumstances and warrantless blood draws of suspected drunk drivers, it is clear that the suspicion of drunk driving, on its own, will not be enough to justify an officer seeking a blood sample without a warrant or the suspect’s consent.