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SCOTUS: Warrant Needed for DUI Blood Test, Maybe

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on April 18, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As we all know, laws are incredibly dynamic. Just a few months ago, we went over the possibility of forced blood draws of DUI suspects and how it's probably a bad idea to refuse a test. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police usually have to get a search warrant before they can order blood tests for drunken-driving suspects.

The vote was 8-to-1, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting by his lonesome.

The Fouth Amendment protects your privacy by usually requiring police to get a search warrant before they can stop and search you without your consent. But there’s an exception for situations where there isn’t time to get a warrant because of an emergency.

So the question in Missouri v. McNeely was whether police officers can force you to take a blood test without a warrant when they suspect you of driving drunk.

Back in 1966, a U.S. Supreme Court decision said they could. It made an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement for DUI-related blood tests. The court’s rationale was that officers can’t spare the time to get a warrant because of how quickly alcohol leaves the bloodstream.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled that in most drunk driving cases, there is enough time to get a warrant. So now there isn’t an automatic exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement for forced blood draws.

Justice Sotomayor, who wrote the majority opinion in the decision, said that in this day-and-age, police can get a warrant quickly by using their cellphones or by email, and that in most jurisdictions a magistrate is available day and night to grant a warrant request, NPR reports.

But the decision doesn’t mean that police always need a warrant. There’s still an exception for exigent circumstances. It’s just that “blood dissipating quickly” doesn’t automatically count as an emergency anymore. Emergency situations when an officer can’t follow the warrant requirement, Sotomayor wrote, will be decided on a “case-by-case” basis and later justified in court.

Chief Justice Roberts mostly agreed with the majority opinion but said the police need more practical guidance: “A police officer reading this court’s opinion would have no idea — no idea — what the Fourth Amendment requires of him.”

Justice Kennedy stressed the need for guidance to police officers, The New York Times reports. He thinks states should be able to take out the guesswork for officers by adopting rules and procedures that satisfy the Fourth Amendment in blood draw cases.

In dissent, Justice Thomas stated the natural dissipation of blood alcohol is an emergency that justifies warrant exemption.

For your purposes, know that in many cases, police officers will now need a warrant before forcing a suspected drunk driver to submit to a blood alcohol test.

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