Monday, April 22, 2013
US Supreme Court requires warrant before taking of blood in DWI Missouri v McNeely
US Supreme Court requires warrant before taking of blood in DWI Missouri v McNeely __ S. Ct. ___ Decided April 17, 2013 Docket No. 11–1425
Held: The judgment is affirmed.
358 S. W. 3d 65, affirmed.
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II–A, II–B, and IV, concluding that in drunk-driving investigations, 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.
(a) The principle that a warrantless search of the person is reasonable only if it falls within a recognized exception, see, e.g., United States v. Robinson, 414 U. S. 218, applies here, where the search involved a compelled physical intrusion beneath McNeely’s skin and into his veins to obtain a blood sample to use as evidence in a criminal investigation. One recognized exception “applies when ‘ “the exigencies of the situation” make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable.’ ” Kentucky v. King, 563 U. S. ___, ___. This Court looks to the totality of circumstances in determining whether an exigency exits. See Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U. S. 398. Applying this approach in Schmerber, the Court found a warrantless blood test reasonable after considering all of the facts and circumstances of that case and carefully basing its holding on those specific facts, including that alcohol levels decline after drinking stops and that testing was delayed while officers transported the injured suspect to the hospital and investigated the accident scene.
(b) The State nonetheless seeks a per se rule, contending that exigent circumstances necessarily exist when an officer has probable cause to believe a person has been driving under the influence of alcohol because BAC evidence is inherently evanescent. Though a person’s blood alcohol level declines until the alcohol is eliminated, it does not follow that the Court should depart from careful case-by-case assessment of exigency. When officers in drunk-driving investigations can reasonably obtain a warrant before having a blood sample drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so. See McDonald v. United States, 335 U. S. 451. Circumstances may make obtaining a warrant impractical such that the alcohol’s dissipation will support an exigency, but that is a reason to decide each case on its facts, as in Schmerber, not to accept the “considerable overgeneralization” that a per se rule would reflect, Richards v. Wisconsin, 520 U. S. 385. Blood testing is different in critical respects from other destruction-of-evidence cases. Unlike a situation where, e.g., a suspect has control over easily disposable evidence, see Cupp v. Murphy, 412 U. S. 291, BAC evidence naturally dissipates in a gradual and relatively predictable manner. Moreover, because an officer must typically take a DWI suspect to a medical facility and obtain a trained medical professional’s assistance before having a blood test conducted, some delay between the time of the arrest or accident and time of the test is inevitable regardless of whether a warrant is obtained. The State’s rule also fails to account for advances in the 47 years since Schmerber was decided that allow for the more expeditious processing of warrant applications, particularly in contexts like drunk-driving investigations where the evidence supporting probable cause is simple. The natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support an exigency finding in a specific case, as it did in Schmerber, but it does not do so categorically.
(c) Because the State sought a per se rule here, it did not argue that there were exigent circumstances in this particular case. The arguments and the record thus do not provide the Court with an adequate framework for a detailed discussion of all the relevant factors that can be taken into account in determining the reasonableness of acting without a warrant. It suffices to say that the metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream and the ensuing loss of evidence are among the factors that must be considered in deciding whether a warrant is required.
Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Scalia, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Kagan, concluded in Part III that other arguments advanced by the State and amici in support of a per se rule are unpersuasive. Their concern that a case-by-case approach to exigency will not provide adequate guidance to law enforcement officers may make the desire for a bright-line rule understandable, but the Fourth Amendment will not tolerate adoption of an overly broad categorical approach in this context. A fact-intensive, totality of the circumstances, approach is hardly unique within this Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. See, e.g., Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U. S. 119–125. They also contend that the privacy interest implicated here is minimal. But motorists’ diminished expectation of privacy does not diminish their privacy interest in preventing a government agent from piercing their skin. And though a blood test conducted in a medical setting by trained personnel is less intrusive than other bodily invasions, this Court has never retreated from its recognition that any compelled intrusion into the human body implicates significant, constitutionally protected privacy interests. Finally, the government’s general interest in combating drunk driving does not justify departing from the warrant requirement without showing exigent circumstances that make securing a warrant impractical in a particular case.