Supreme Court: warrantless blood alcohol tests unconstitutional

This week, in a decision that could have a major impact on those suspected of driving drunk or under the influence of drugs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police cannot compel suspects to undergo blood tests without a warrant. While a DWI blood test refusal, like a breath test refusal, could still result in the loss of your driver's license, the new ruling means that police cannot force you to submit to the test.

The case arose after a Missouri man was pulled over on suspicion of DWI. He refused a Breathalyzer test, but failed several field sobriety tests and was arrested. The highway patrol trooper drove the suspect to a hospital, where the man was forced, handcuffed, to submit to having his blood drawn.

Although the officer might have been able to get a warrant to draw the man's blood, he did not do so. The blood test revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.154 percent, nearly twice the legal limit.

The Missouri courts, however, ruled that the compulsory, warrantless blood draw was a violation of the defendant's Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure by the government. Since the evidence was obtained in violation of his constitutional rights, the government was not allowed to use it to convict him, and his case was overturned. That result was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court, so the State of Missouri appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The State of Missouri, joined by the federal government, argued that the fact that alcohol in the blood dissipates over time makes it urgent for law enforcement to be able to collect and stabilize it right away. With such limited time, getting a warrant created a delay that should not be required. The court has ruled in the past that some searches and seizures that would otherwise be considered unreasonable can be excused by urgency or in certain other circumstances.

In an 8 to 1 decision, the high court rejected that view. Drawing a person's blood is such a substantial intrusion into their bodily integrity that the dissipation of alcohol is not enough to excuse it. There may be circumstances where a warrant would not be required, but in general a warrant is the basic, reasonable step needed to guarantee citizens' rights are protected.

Source: Associated Press, "Court rejects routine no-warrant DUI blood tests," April 17, 2013

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