Missouri v. McNeely

The United States Supreme Court faces questions that cover the entire spectrum of legal issues, so it’s not often they publish a holding bearing directly on DUI law. But that’s exactly what they did in April when Missouri v. McNeely was decided.

Tyler McNeely had been stopped by Missouri police on the allegation that he was speeding and had crossed the center line. He declined to take a breath test, was arrested, and taken to a hospital for a blood draw. The officer did not obtain a warrant for McNeely’s blood, nor did he even attempt to get one. McNeeley did not consent to the blood draw, in fact when he was asked he refused to give his consent. Nevertheless, a sample was taken which showed a BAC of 0.154 (well above the legal limit of 0.08 in Montana and Missouri). He was charged with DUI under Missouri law.

McNeely challenged the results of the blood draw, arguing that they were taken in violation of the constitution (specifically his Fourth Amendment rights) and should therefore be suppressed under the exclusionary rule. The trial court agreed, finding that the exigency exception to the warrant requirement did not apply because, apart from the fact that McNeely’s blood alcohol was dissipating, no circumstances suggested that the officer faced an emergency. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed that decision.

The issue, as framed by the U.S. Supreme Court, was whether the natural metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream presents a per se exigency that justifies an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement for nonconsensual blood testing in all drunk-driving cases. Justice Sotomayor, writing for the majority, held that exigency in this context must be determined case by case based on the totality of the circumstances.

There are a few main facts which are vital to understanding this decision: 1) McNeely’s blood was taken against his will; 2) McNeely’s blood was taken without a warrant; 3) The only justification offered for not obtaining the warrant was that any alcohol in McNeely’s blood was dissipating with his natural metabolic processes.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” However, there are also a limited number of legally recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement. This means that if the police are going to search you or seize your property (including your blood) they must either obtain a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement must exist. In McNeely’s case, it was undisputed that no warrant had been obtained or even requested. So, did an exception apply?

Remember, the only warrant exception the police claimed in McNeely’s case was that the alcohol was dissipating from his blood over time. This, the police thought, fit the warrant exception known as exigent circumstances. That exception applies when the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that a warrantless search is objectively reasonable. The Supreme Court offered examples such as a situation where the police engage in “hot pursuit” of a fleeing suspect, or enter a burning building to put out a fire and investigate its cause. They all share the common fact that there was a compelling need for official action and no time to secure a warrant.

The police argued that whenever an officer has probable cause to believe an individual has been driving under the influence of alcohol, exigent circumstances will necessarily exist because BAC evidence is inherently evanescent. Here, the police are saying that because BAC rates go down over time, there is always an emergency. The Supreme Court disagreed, but on a specific point: the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute an exigency in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant.

The decision essentially said you need something more. In McNeely’s case, the police only relied on the fact that alcohol dissipates in the blood. They didn’t even try to obtain a warrant. They didn’t even try to justify not obtaining a warrant. They just executed a warrantless seizure of McNeely’s blood. Going forward, this is forbidden. Exactly how hard the police have to try to obtain the warrant, and exactly what kind of justification for not obtaining a warrant will be accepted are questions for another day. But for now, the police need something more.

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