Hallelujiah! The Supreme Court yesterday continued its recent string of protecting all of our rights by reinvigorating the reach of the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that police need a search warrant to get incriminating evidence from a suspect. Yesterday’s case involved the forcible removal of blood from a drunk driving suspect. By an 8-1 margin the Court held that getting the blood without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. The case is Missouri v. McNeely.
In the early-morning hours of Oct. 3, 2010, Missouri State Highway Patrol Cpl. Mark Winder pulled over Tyler G. McNeely. McNeely, whose speech was slurred and who had alcohol on his breath, failed a field sobriety test and twice refused to take a breath test.
Winder arrested McNeely. While en route to the jail, the officer stopped by a hospital. McNeely refused to submit to a blood test. Officer Winder then ordered a technician to draw blood anyway. The officer later said he did not try and get a warrant because he thought Missouri law did not require it.
The Missouri Supreme Court unanimously disagreed and said the blood test could not be used. Courts nationwide were divided on the issue, which led the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case, and ultimately issue yesterday’s ruling.
The prosecution argued that the natural dissipation of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream was the reason the Supreme Court should create yet one more exception to the Fourth Amendment’s rather clear mandate that there shall be no search or seizure unless based on a probable cause determination resulting in a warrant. Writing for herself and four other members of the majority, Justice Sotomayor rejected this argument. She said such emergencies must be determined by the circumstances in a case-by-case examination and rejected the notion that officers face a “now or never” situation in obtaining blood alcohol tests. “In those drunk-driving investigations where police officers can reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample can be drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so,” Sotomayor wrote.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. agreed with the outcome of the case,but criticized the vagueness of the majority’s test. “If there is time to secure a warrant before blood can be drawn, the police must seek one,” Roberts wrote. “If an officer could reasonably conclude that there is not sufficient time to seek and receive a warrant, or he applies for one but does not receive a response before blood can be drawn, a warrantless blood draw may ensue.”
I have written posts here and here about the seeming resurgence in the Supreme Court’s inclination to protect individual liberties against over-intrusive police practices. We hope this trend continues, for it is perfectly reasonable to have effective law enforcement alongside a robust respect for personal liberty and freedom.