A Better St. Louis. Powered by Journalism.
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Print
  • Email

Drunken driving suspects can't be forced to take blood alcohol tests without warrants, court rules

In Law Scoop

5:01 pm on Wed, 04.17.13

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that Missouri couldn’t force a Cape Girardeau man suspected of drunken driving to submit to a blood alcohol test without obtaining a search warrant. 

The court ruled 5-4 in favor of Tyler McNeely who was arrested after driving erratically and then forced to submit to a blood test at a hospital after he refused a breath test. The blood test showed he was legally drunk. (Read the Scotusblog file on the case.)

Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor

Writing for the fractured court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that “the natural metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream” did not constitute the kind of emergency situation that allows police to conduct quick, warrantless searches to avoid the destruction of evidence.

Cases involving drunken drivers must be decided on a case-by-case basis based on the “totality of the circumstances,” she wrote.  A key question is how long it would take to obtain a warrant. 

While acknowledging the importance of combating drunk driving, Sotomayor said this was not enough reason to abandon the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that police generally get a warrant before conducting a search.

Anthony Kennedy
Anthony Kennedy

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whose vote was necessary to give Sotomayor her majority, refused to go as far as she, signing on to part of the opinion.  Kennedy wrote that local officials still can work out “rules and guidelines that give important, practical instruction to arresting officers.” Those rules might allow blood testing without a warrant “to preserve the critical evidence,” he said.

Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which helped represent McNeely, said in a statement that he was pleased the court “recognizes that the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not qualify as an emergency justifying a forced blood draw without a warrant.

“Unless there is a true emergency,” Rothert said, “the police must take the time to obtain a warrant, as intended by the Fourth Amendment, which protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving said a requirement for a warrant would “hamper enforcement efforts against drunk drivers – and, as a result, could lead to more drunk driving and more tragic loss of life.”

The court did not break down along typical liberal and conservative lines.  Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, from the more conservative wing of the court, joined Justices Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan in the majority.

John Roberts
John Roberts

Justice Stephen Breyer, who usually sides with more liberal justices, instead joined Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion arguing for clear instructions to police.

“A police officer reading this court’s opinion,” wrote Roberts, “would have no idea — no idea — what the Fourth Amendment requires of him, once he decides to obtain a blood sample from a drunken driving suspect who has refused a breathalyzer test.”

Roberts suggested that police should have to seek a warrant if they can get one before arriving at the hospital, but otherwise would not need a warrant. 

In response, Sotomayor said, the chief justice’s rule would lead to “odd consequences.” If an officer stopped a suspected drunken driver near a hospital, there would be no time to get a warrant before arriving at the emergency room.

McNeely was stopped by a Missouri Highway patrolman just after 2 a.m. on Oct. 3, 2010 because he was speeding and veering across the center line.  His eyes were bloodshot, his speech slurred, he had alcohol on his breath, and he did poorly on sobriety tests.  McNeely admitted to a couple of beers.

McNeely refused to take a breathalyzer, even though that means his license should be suspended. 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 0.154 alcohol level, above the 0.08 intoxication level.

The patrolman said he had time to get a warrant and 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.

The Supreme Court decision helps decide a question that has hung over the controversial 1966 decision of Schmerber vs. California. In that case, the court ruled that authorities could force a drunken driving suspect to give a blood sample under some circumstances, such as a traffic accident that delayed the officer at the scene.

The question, which has divided courts around the nation, is whether the natural decrease in the blood alcohol content over time is enough reason alone to obtain a sample without a warrant. Police can ignore the search warrant requirement when there are “exigent” circumstances, such as the imminent destruction of evidence.

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.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision.

Sotomayor pointed out that police are able to obtain warrants more quickly than they could half a century ago. If the court had agreed with Missouri, it “would improperly ignore the current and future technological developments in warrant procedures, and might well diminish the incentive for jurisdictions,” wrote Sotomayor.

She concluded: "In short, while the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support a finding of exigency in a specific case, as it did in Schmerber, it does not do so categorically. Whether a warrantless blood test of a drunk-driving suspect is reasonable must be determined case by case based on the totality of the circumstances.”

No Comments

Join The Beacon

When you register with the Beacon, you can save your searches as news alerts, rsvp for events, manage your donations and receive news and updates from the Beacon team.

Register Now

Already a Member

Getting around the new site

Take a look at our tutorials to help you get the hang of the new site.

Most Discussed Articles By Beacon Members

Conference of American nuns will mull response to Vatican charges

In Nation

7:55 am on Fri, 08.03.12

Meeting in St. Louis next week, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will have its first opportunity as an assembled group to consider what to do after the Vatican issued a mandate for change this spring. It calls on the conference to reorganize and more strictly observe church teachings.

The 'free' Zoo

In Commentary

7:51 am on Tue, 05.22.12

When a family of four goes to the St. Louis Zoo, they can be forgiven for not knowing it will cost them $60, $72 if they park. If they can't pay, the alternative is to tell the kids they can't do what kids do at the zoo.

Featured Articles

House sends Boeing incentive bill to Nixon

In Economy

12:55 pm on Fri, 12.06.13

The Missouri House easily passed legislation aimed at attracting production of the 777x, a move that wraps up a legislative special session that saw little suspense and few surprises. The bill now goes to Gov. Jay Nixon, who has strongly supported the legislation.

Gandhi inspired Mandela on South Africa's 'Long Road to Freedom'

In World

10:10 am on Fri, 12.06.13

Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, was a towering moral figure of the 20th century -- along with Mahatma Gandhi. It was no coincidence that Gandhi and Mandela, whose paths never crossed directly, both embarked on their campaigns against discrimination in South Africa. It was when Mandela won election as South Africa’s first black president that Gandhi's influence became apparent.

Featured Articles

Regina Carter brings jazz and therapy to Children's Hospital

6:36 am on Mon, 12.09.13

One night, the violinist is taking bows before a standing ovation at Jazz at the Bistro. The next afternoon, some of her audience may have trouble standing, but the kids in the playroom at Children's Hospital were no less appreciative. “Jazz is medicine personified," according to a doctor who brings in the jazz musicians.

Encore: Dead before death

In Performing Arts

12:58 am on Fri, 12.06.13

For years , the author was certain he would never come to appreciate The Grateful Dead, let alone be a Deadhead. But little by little, he's come around. He talks about his conversion and relates a real evolution: by a musician who went on to play with the Schwag, a Dead cover band.

Featured Articles

Schlichter honored with St. Louis Award

In Region

4:57 pm on Tue, 12.03.13

The attorney has founded Arch Grants, which brings together nonprofit philanthropy and commercially viable opportunitiesto fund new business startups, and Mentor St. Louis, which finds adult mentors for elementary students in the St. Louis Public School System. He was the driving force behind the state's historic tax credit program.

BioGenerator sets open house to celebrate new digs for entrepreneurs-in-residence

In InnovationSTL

12:29 pm on Tue, 11.12.13

BioSTL's BioGenerator organization is on the move as its entrepreneurs-in-residence find a new home in 4,300 square feet of office and conference space in an old automobile factory. The blossoming program, which helps BioGenerator's portfolio companies to get off the ground, continues to pay dividends within the growing biotech community.

Ambassadors aim to soften rough landing for St. Louis immigrants

In InnovationSTL

6:34 am on Fri, 11.08.13

The St. Louis Mosaic Project is set to hold an orientation for its new ambassadors -- dozens of foreign and native-born volunteers who aim to help make the community a more welcoming place for those from other nations. Participants will be expected to do everything from visiting local restaurants serving international cuisine to having dinner with an immigrant to the area.

Recent Articles

More Articles

Innovation and entrepreneurial activity are on the rise in St. Louis, especially in bioscience, technology and alternative energy. The Beacon's InnovationSTL section focuses on the people who are part of this wave, what they're doing and how this is shaping our future. To many St. Louisans, this wave is not yet visible. InnovationSTL aims to change that. We welcome you to share your knowledge, learn more about this vibrant trend and discuss its impact.

Featured Articles

Regina Carter brings jazz and therapy to Children's Hospital

6:36 am on Mon, 12.09.13

One night, the violinist is taking bows before a standing ovation at Jazz at the Bistro. The next afternoon, some of her audience may have trouble standing, but the kids in the playroom at Children's Hospital were no less appreciative. “Jazz is medicine personified," according to a doctor who brings in the jazz musicians.

Featured Articles

Featured Events:

Upcoming Events

View Full Calendar

More About The Beacon Home