Does alcohol metabolism justify warrantless blood tests?

If you are ever pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, can a police officer force you to take a blood test against your will without first getting a warrant? The United States Supreme Court recently accepted a case that will decide this legal issue. The decision, which could affect how DUI suspects are treated across the nation, will decide whether the Fourth Amendment protects suspects against mandatory blood tests in such a situation.

The case is called Missouri v. McNeely. The case started when a highway patrol officer in Missouri pulled over Tyler McNeely for speeding. The officer testified that certain events during the stop led him to believe that McNeely's was driving drunk. Because of these suspicions, the officer asked McNeely to take a field sobriety test, which McNeely failed. The officer asked McNeely to consent to giving a blood sample to measure his blood alcohol level. However, McNeely refused.

After McNeely's refusal, the officer transported him to a clinic and ordered a staff member to take a sample of his blood, despite his continuing objections. The test results that McNeely's blood alcohol level was almost double the legal limit. McNeely was subsequently charged with DUI.

Prior to the jury trial, McNeely's lawyers made a motion for the court to exclude the blood test results. They argued that the blood test results were not admissible as evidence, because the officer did not obtain a search warrant prior to drawing McNeely's blood.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, argued that in the time it would take to get a warrant, more alcohol in McNeely's system would be metabolized. Since the delay in getting a warrant would lead to the destruction of evidence against McNeely, they argued that officers were legally justified in taking a blood sample without a warrant.

At the conclusion of the trial, the judge ruled in favor of McNeely and barred the blood test from being entered into evidence. The prosecution appealed and the Missouri appeals court reversed the trial court's ruling. McNeely appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. The court reinstated the trial court's ruling. The court reasoned that a warrant was required to compel the blood test, because there were no emergency or "exigent circumstances" that would justify taking the blood without a warrant.

This issue has been litigated in courts around the nation, but each court has had different opinions on whether alcohol metabolism constitutes an emergency that would justify police officers to force a suspect to give a blood sample without first obtaining a warrant. The United States Supreme Court will now make the final decision.

An attorney can help

Like many other states, South Carolina law allows drivers to refuse to consent to a blood or breath test-although doing so has its own penalties. However, in South Carolina a client does have a right to refuse both the breath and/or blood test and given the inherent inaccuracies of both tests it is often advisable to refuse.

As the McNeely decision is not expected until next spring, how it will affect the law as it currently stands remains to be seen. If you have been accused of drunk driving, it is important to present a strong defense. Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can ensure that your rights are protected.