Supreme Court Watch: Missouri v. McNeely
How far can police go in obtaining evidence without permission? There are some instances (called “exigent circumstances”) in which the law holds that Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the need for a search warrant, are commonly suspended. The limits of this idea will be tested in the Supreme Court today.
The case of Missouri v. McNeely asks whether a law enforcement officer may obtain a nonconsensual and warrantless blood sample from someone suspected of driving while intoxicated, under the argument that waiting the time needed to obtain a warrant would allow “the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream.” This, argues the State of Missouri, provides “exigent circumstances” which permit the State to override the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights.
On October 3, 2010, Tyler McNeely was pulled over by Missouri state police officer Mark Winder for driving above the speed limit, and for three times drifting over the centerline. Officer Winder claimed to observe that McNeely’s eyes were “red and glassy,” and that McNeely’s breath smelled of alcohol. Officer Winder subjected McNeely to a series of four field sobriety tests, on which McNeely performed poorly.
McNeely refused to submit to a breathalyzer test. Officer Winder then arrested him for driving while intoxicated and brought him to St. Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau to obtain a blood sample. McNeely refused to coöperate. Winder read him the Missouri “implied consent” law. Something like the shrinkwrap “agreements” that come with software in which the seller imposes conditions on the sale (and which buyers almost never read), “implied consent” laws hold that consent to various conditions is reasonably inferred “from signs, actions, or facts, or by inaction or silence.” In this case, the fact that McNeely had a driver’s license is taken by the State as implying he has consented to being subject to such seizure of evidence as blood tests for alcohol content.
This would have been McNeely’s third DWI offense. Potentially, he would be subject to a four-year prison term. Even after being read the Missouri implied consent statement, McNeely still refused to willingly provide a blood sample. Officer Winder ordered it to be taken anyway, and it was forcibly obtained. The test showed McNeely’s blood alcohol level to be 0.154 percent, “well over” the legal limit. The State of Missouri subsequently charged him with driving while intoxicated. The case went to trial, and McNeely moved to have the blood test suppressed because it was obtained without a warrant.
In what may come as a surprise to many, the trial court agreed with McNeely. The State appealed this decision, arguing, as described above, that the danger of McNeely’s body metabolizing the alcohol out of his system represented “exigent circumstances,” allowing them to forgo the time needed to obtain a warrant. The appeals court held that the trial court had erred in its decision, but that the case represented a unique twist on normal case law, and transferred the whole thing to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Again, perhaps surprisingly, the Missouri high court ruled in McNeely’s favor. The State of Missouri appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and oral arguments in the case will be heard today.
This is a chance for the Supreme Court to resolve different rulings among the several states:
McNeely is being defended in the Supreme Court by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues:
Warrantless searches are presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Missouri’s argument in favor of a categorical exception to the warrant requirement in all DWI cases was unanimously rejected by the Missouri Supreme Court. Missouri’s claim that a categorical exception to the warrant requirement is necessary to ensure effective enforcement of the DWI laws is contradicted by the experience of 26 states that prohibit warrantless blood draws in routine DWI cases, like this one.
Note that the facts of this case are not in dispute. McNeely was driving wile intoxicated, and the State wanted to set aside his Fourth Amendment rights in order to prove it. Note also that Missouri is apparently not arguing that the “public good” of preventing someone from driving drunk is sufficient reason to override the Fourth Amendment. The State is arguing instead that it’s a matter of timing.
What do you think about this case? More than half of the States agree with McNeely and the ACLU. Do you agree that a warrant should be required to obtain blood from a suspect, even in the case of drunk driving? Does the time needed to obtain a warrant, as compared to the time for the evidence (in this case, the level of alcohol in the blood) to dissipate, provide sufficient reason to set aside a Constitutional right?
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About dcpetterson (187 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson