Fourth Amendment victory: Warrantless blood test, unreasonable search and seizure in DUI cases struck down by the court

Saturday, May 18, 2013 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: Fouth Amendment, search warrants, blood alcohol level

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(NaturalNews) The Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights has suffered mightily of late, but the U.S. Supreme Court has recently strengthened it in a case involving drunk driving and a little requirement like a search warrant.

In a 5-4 decision, justices ruled that police who are following up on drunk driving investigations will now only be able to draw a suspect's blood with a court order authorizing the search.

The ruling drew together justices who are typically on opposite ends of the political spectrum when it comes to constitutional decisions: Justices Sonya Sotomayor, Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy and Elena Kagan made up the majority (Kennedy is often a swing vote but Ginsberg, Sotomayor and Kagan could not be further to the left of Scalia if they tried).

'Such laws impose significant consequences when a motorist withdraws consent'

The court's majority said the natural expiration of alcohol in the bloodstream is not a "destruction of evidence," which otherwise would give police officers cause to search a suspect without a warrant.

The ruling in Missouri v. McNeely stems from a Driving Under the Influence arrest in which a police officer claimed that blood was drawn without a warrant or the suspect's prior consent because the suspect's liver was actively filtering the alcohol in the suspect's bloodstream and thus destroying evidence of a crime.

The Missouri Supreme Court said no, however, that wasn't a constitution of destruction of evidence, and also ruled in favor of the arrested suspect's contention that the search was an unconstitutional violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and to not be searched without a warrant.

And the nation's highest court eventually agreed.

"As an initial matter, States have a broad range of legal tools to enforce their drunk-driving laws and to secure BAC [blood-alcohol content] evidence without undertaking warrantless non-consensual blood draws," Justice Sotomayor wrote for the majority. "For example, all 50 States have adopted implied consent laws that require motorists, as a condition of operating a motor vehicle within the State, to consent to BAC testing if they are arrested or otherwise detained on suspicion of a drunk-driving offense."

"Such laws impose significant consequences when a motorist withdraws consent," she continued, "typically the motorist's driver's license is immediately suspended or revoked, and most States allow the motorist's refusal to take a BAC test to be used as evidence against him in a subsequent criminal prosecution." She also noted there is "no evidence" suggesting that a restriction of blood draws is an impediment to DUI enforcement efforts.

The court's majority opinion concluded: "We hold that in drunk-driving investigations, the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute an exigency in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant."

'Drunk driving laws can be enforced per the Constitution

Steven Shapiro, the National Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the high court's ruling, as well as the ruling by the Missouri high court, for staying true to the word and spirit of the Fourth Amendment.

"We know from experience drunk-driving laws can be strictly enforced without abandoning constitutional rights," he said in a statement. "Today's decision appropriately recognizes what half the states have already demonstrated - that maintaining highway safety does not require sacrificing personal privacy."

The ACLU represented McNeely before the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to the high court's ruling, the suspect, Tyler McNeely was arrested by a Missouri officer after the officer witnessed him speeding and crossing the center line. The suspect refused to take a blood alcohol test (BAC), so the officer arrested him and took him to a nearby hospital, where his blood was drawn and his alcohol level was found to be well above the legal limit of .08 ml.

The suspect was charged with driving will intoxicated, but successive state and federal courts agreed that the officer was obligated to obtain a warrant before obtaining a blood sample.

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