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Court restricts use of blood alcohol tests

April 17, 2013 at 11:17 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, April 17 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday made it harder for police to take driver blood tests without a warrant.

There were only partial dissents.

In October 2010, Tyler G. McNeely was pulled over by a Missouri state highway patrolman for speeding. The patrolman administered a series of standard field-sobriety tests, and McNeely performed poorly on all of them, the state said.

The officer drove directly to a nearby hospital, read to McNeely an implied consent form and then asked him to submit to a blood sample. McNeely refused.

The officer then directed a lab technician to draw a blood sample.

Court records say McNeely's blood-alcohol content was 0.154 percent, almost twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent. The officer did not obtain a search warrant before ordering the sample.

"Obtaining a search warrant in the middle of the night in Cape Girardeau County involves a delay, on average, of approximately 2 hours," the state told the U.S. Supreme Court. "The generally accepted rate of elimination of alcohol in the bloodstream is between 0.015 and 0.02 percent per hour."

Because McNeely had two prior convictions for driving while intoxicated, he was charged with a class D felony under Missouri law, which carries a maximum of four years in prison.

Eventually, the state Supreme Court ruled in McNeely's case, suppressing the blood sample evidence. The state court said there had been no "exigent circumstances" -- no circumstances that called for immediate action -- that would have excused the failure to obtain a warrant under the Fourth Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.

In the prevailing opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Supreme Court precedent on warrantless searches "applies here, where the search involved a compelled physical intrusion beneath McNeely's skin and into his veins to obtain a blood sample to use as evidence in a criminal investigation."

She said an exception to a warrant requirement would occur when a "totality of the circumstances" supports "exigent circumstances.".

Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by three other justices, concurred in part and dissented in part, saying: "A police officer reading this court's opinion would have no idea -- no idea -- what the Fourth Amendment requires of him, once he decides to obtain a blood sample from a drunk driving suspect who has refused a Breathalyzer test. I have no quarrel with the court's 'totality of the circumstances' approach as a general matter; that is what our cases require. But the circumstances in drunk driving cases are often typical, and the court should be able to offer guidance on how police should handle cases like the one before us."

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