This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 26, 2012 - The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a Missouri Highway patrolman had to obtain a search warrant before forcibly obtaining a blood sample from a drunk driving suspect. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the patrolman's failure to obtain a warrant violated the suspect's fourth amendment right against unreasonable searches.
The case could decide a question that has hung over the controversial 1966 decision of Schmerber vs. California. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that authorities could force a drunk driving suspect to give a blood sample under some circumstances. The question, which has divided courts around the nation, is whether the natural decrease in the blood alcohol content over time is enough reason to obtain a sample without a warrant or whether some other circumstances, such as a traffic accident, have to be involved. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled unanimously that additional factors, over and above the passage of time, must be present to justify a warrantless invasion of the body.
A Missouri Highway patrolman stopped Tyler McNeely for speeding around 2 a.m. on Oct. 3, 2010. He noticed that McNeely showed signs of intoxication and asked him to take a breath test voluntarily. When McNeely refused, the patrolman took him to St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau where the patrolman instructed hospital technicians to take a blood sample forcibly. The sample showed that McNeely had a .154 alcohol level, above the .08 intoxication level.
The patrolman testified that he had sought search warrants in similar previous cases but decided to seek the blood test without a warrant because he had read that Missouri law had changed. A trial judge threw out the blood test because of the absence of a warrant. An appeals court reversed the decision, but the Missouri Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the blood test was inadmissible without a warrant.
For more detail, read the Scotusblog file on the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1966 Schmerber case that "special facts" justified the forcible blood test without a warrant. In that case, the drunk driving suspect had been injured and had to be transported to the hospital.
The Missouri Supreme Court pointed out that three courts have ruled that the dissipation of alcohol in the blood over time is enough reason to justify a warrantless blood test. Three other courts have said that other circumstances have to be involved, such as the need to transport victims to the hospital or the need for officers to stay at the scene to investigate. Those additional factors can require a greater time delay, causing a greater reduction in the alcohol level.
The Missouri Supreme Court said that "warrantless intrusions of the body are not to be undertaken lightly" and ruled that a warrant is required in a routine traffic stop, as in the McNeely case.
Local prosecutors appealed and their plea was one six cases that the Supreme Court agreed to hear on Tuesday. The ACLU of Eastern Missouri is representing McNeely. Brenda L. Jones, executive director of the ACLU office in St. Louis, said in a press release that “the Missouri Supreme Court was correct when it ruled that this was an infringement of the fourth amendment, which protects individuals from warrantless searches."
Michael Wolff, former Missouri Supreme Court judge, said in an email that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to hear the case probably means "at least four justices disagree with the Missouri Supreme Court decision. Decision day in McNeely may not be a good day for the fourth amendment."