United States Supreme Court Weighs Legality of Obtaining Warrantless Blood Sample From a Drunk Driver: Missouri vs. Tyler McNeely

In a recent drunk driving case, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments from both the State of Missouri and defense attorneys as to the right of law enforcement officials to obtain a non-consensual and warrantless blood sample from a suspected drunk driver.

Although this case arises out of an incident in Missouri, the implications of the Supreme Court’s ultimate holding are potentially much broader. Courts in other jurisdictions, including Tennessee, will be bound to follow the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, where the facts are found to be analogous.

In this case, on October 3, 2010, a highway patrolman pulled over defendant Tyler McNeely for speeding. While conducting the routine traffic stop, the officer believed that McNeely was intoxicated due to his blood-shot eyes, slurred speech, and the scent of alcohol on his breath. At this point the officer asked McNeely to step out of the car and submit to field-sobriety tests.

McNeely performed the tests poorly and was placed under arrest for driving while intoxicated. He then refused to take a breath test and, later at the hospital, also refused to agree to a blood test. Despite refusing to consent to the blood test, the officer directed a hospital employee to draw defendant’s blood. His blood alcohol limit was .15%, almost twice the legal limit.

The trial court granted defendant’s motion to suppress the results of the blood test as a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, pointing out that there had been no “exigent circumstances” that could allow for the failure to obtain a warrant. The State of Missouri appealed. The Appellate Court reversed the finding, holding that the exigent circumstances exception did apply – obviating the need for a warrant.

After the highest court in Missouri affirmed the trial court’s ruling, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on the issue of whether the natural dissipation of blood alcohol, by itself, satisfies the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment.

A 1966 U.S. Supreme Court opinion dispensed with the need to first obtain a warrant before drawing blood in an alcohol-related arrest. There, the court limited the holding to the particular facts of the case: the arresting officer was faced with “special facts” that could have led him to believe that any delay associated with waiting for the warrant would threaten the destruction of evidence.

In that case, the defendant was involved in an accident in which a passenger was injured. The officer was concerned about the dissipation of alcohol in the defendant’s blood, as well as the need to conduct an investigation of the accident scene and transport those injured to the hospital.

As citizens of the United States, we are entitled to protections under the Constitution. It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court rules in this case. The Justices will have to weigh, among other things, the fact that alcohol dissipates in the bloodstream fairly quickly after one stops drinking with the need to protect citizens from an unlawful search and seizure.

The Law Office of David S. Hagy, PLC, handles cases involving alcohol related injuries in Nashville and throughout Middle Tennessee, as well as other personal injury and automobile accident cases. For a free consultation, please contact us online or call us at (615) 975-7882.

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