Missouri v. McNeely (USSC 2013)

The United States Supreme Court case of Missouri v. McNeely addressed the issue of a non-consensual blood draw in a DWI investigation.  The issue was whether such a blood draw in the absence of a warrant was allowable under the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The Court held that it was not.

The facts in brief are as follows.  The respondent was stopped for speeding and crossing over the center line (two common reasons for a DWI stop).  The respondent refused a breath alcohol exam.  The officer then transported the respondent to a hospital for a blood test.  Despite the respondent’s refusal to consent to the blood test, the officer ordered a lab technician to take his blood sample anyway.  The officer failed to secure a warrant.

The respondent’s test was above the legal limit.  He was charged with DWI.  The respondent moved to suppress the blood test results as a product of an illegal search and seizure under the 4th Amendment.  The trial court agreed and excluded the evidence.  The State of Missouri appealed with the case making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The State of Missouri argued that there were exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless search.  The “exigent circumstances” exception exists when “the exigencies of the situation” make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable.”  The Supreme Court did not believe the exception applied to this case.  There were no such circumstances justifying the warrantless non-consensual blood draw.  Instead, the Court stated that this was no more than a routine DWI investigation.

The State of Missouri argued for a blanket exception to the warrant requirement when there is a suspicion of DWI.   The argued exigencies in these cases involved the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood stream and the need to preserve evidence.  This did not in the Court’s view rise to the level of exigency necessary to justify an exception to the 4th Amendment warrant requirements.

The Court did recognize the need to preserve evidence in these cases.   The Court however stated that the State of Missouri’s position failed to reflect the ease and speed with which a warrant might be obtained.  The Court placed no prohibitions on a such legally secured and executed warrants so the State’s position under the circumstances was not tenable.

The Court recognized the possibility that circumstances in a particular case might rise to the level of exigency to justify a warrantless non-consensual blood draw.  However, the cases would need to be evaluated on a case by case basis.  A broad overly generalized rule as proposed by the State of Missouri was unacceptable in light of the 4th Amendment privacy interests at stake.

The Court did recognize the importance of DWI deterrence.  However, the Court refused to allow these goals to override 4th Amendment privacy interests.  The Court further recognized that the states have other tools for deterrence such as automatic revocation of driver’s license and enhanced or aggravated DWI charges for a refusal. Finally, the Court in no way circumscribed the State’s ability to obtain a blood test through a properly secured warrant.

To read the full Supreme Court opinion, go here:  Missouri v. McNeely

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