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SCOTUS Weighs Warrantless DUI Blood Samples

by | Jan 10, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case that is expected to determine whether police can, without a warrant, force you to submit to a blood sample.

Our D.C. DUI lawyers know that up until now, the answer has been that it depends on where you are. Some states expressly require a warrant prior to obtaining an involuntary blood sample, while others have found that no warrant is necessary because your blood contains evidence critical to the case that is deteriorating by the minute.

While it’s impossible to say for certain how the Supreme Court will rule in Missouri v. McNeely, the justices’ line of questioning seemed to indicate they were wary of establishing a precedent of allowing a highly intrusive search without a judge’s approval, even considering the element of urgency pressed by attorneys for the police.

In this case, the arresting officer would testify that he stopped the defendant for suspicion of DUI. The defendant failed several field sobriety tests, but declined to submit to a breathalyzer. While Missouri is one of the states that requires warrants before getting a DUI blood sample, the officer later testified that he did not do this because he had recently read an article quoting a local prosecutor as saying warrants were no longer necessary for this purpose. That assumption was erroneous, though, prompting the state’s supreme court to side with the defendant in ruling that the blood test constituted a violation of his constitutional rights.

This is the primary question before the U.S. Supreme Court: Is the warrantless collection of an involuntary blood sample in a DUI case a violation of Fourth Amendment rights that protect you from unlawful searches and seizures? Or, does the fact that your body so quickly processes alcohol, thereby potentially destroying critical evidence in the case, mean that officers shouldn’t have to bother with warrants for blood samples in DUI cases?

With few exceptions, the law requires that police get permission from a judge before conducting a search. During the recent proceedings, one justice wondered aloud how the court could justify requiring a warrant for a search of one’s home, but not of one’s bodily fluid.

In truth, requiring warrants prior to DUI blood sample submissions probably won’t have an earth-shattering impact on future cases. The reason has to do with technology. Obtaining a warrant no longer requires a time-consuming trip to the on-duty magistrate to obtain an actual signature. Most law enforcement agencies can obtain a warrant from a judge relatively quickly over the phone. Some departments have even started to digitize the process for DUI cases, allowing officers to simply type out the form from their cruiser computer, fire off an e-mail and get confirmation within minutes.

Still, if the justices do decide to outlaw warrantless blood tests in DUI cases, our clients would stand to benefit in the following ways:

  • Warrants are formal, legal records. The officer must swear under oath to the validity of the information contained therein. If we later go back and find any evidence of a discrepancy, it may be grounds to have the subsequent blood analysis results tossed (if they weren’t in the defendant’s favor).
  • Warrants keep police honest. In a lot of DUI cases, barring breathalyzer or blood sample results, the evidence can come down to your word against his. He said you didn’t walk a straight line. You say you did. He says you slurred your speech. You say you didn’t. Many cruisers now have cameras, but there is a lot that doesn’t get picked up in those grainy images. There are a lot of ways we can cast doubt on the officer’s version of events. However, when officers are required to swear to the truth of certain elements on the spot, they are far more likely to choose their words carefully – and not to flagrantly stop people for little or no reason in the first place.
  • Finally, if the warrant in your case is obtained by the officer filling out a digital form with an almost instantaneous response, there is always the possibility we could challenge it on the basis that it was not carefully reviewed by the on-duty magistrate. After all, how much thought could a judge truly give to the individual circumstances of the case if he or she replies within moments?

Of course, we will be monitoring this case closely, and we will continue to keep you apprised of any relevant developments. In the meantime, if you have been arrested for a DUI in Washington D.C., do not hesitate to call our offices today.

Contact the Scrofano Law, PC for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your rights or fill out our online contact form. Visa, Mastercard and Discover cards accepted. Call 202-765-3175.