U.S. Supreme Court rules against warrantless DUI blood draws
Number of local DUI cases likely to stay the same, but warrants will delay procedure
By Shane Cohn 04/25/2013
A new law handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court states that police must generally obtain a warrant before drawing blood from a suspect in a driving under the influence (DUI) case, effective immediately.
The new law will affect many states, including California, where law enforcement previously did not require a warrant to draw blood in drunk-driving cases.
In Ventura County, where there were 3,714 single-count DUI cases filed in the district attorney’s office from Oct.1, 2011, to Sept. 30, 2012, Ventura County DUI attorney Darryl Genis doesn’t think the new law will reduce the number of DUIs issued, as telephonic warrants can be issued in roughly the same amount of time it takes to drive a suspect to a local hospital and draw blood. But, he said, it will end the “warrantless needle-stabbing of citizens based upon what are sometimes very shabby allegations.”
“The blood is still going to be drawn after the arrest,” said Genis. “The mechanism for how they (law enforcement) get there is going to change. They’re going to have to do things right for a change.”
The 8-1 Supreme Court decision, with Justice Clarence Thomas the lone dissenter, cited a violation of the Fourth Amendment as the major factor in the ruling. In the landmark case of Missouri v. McNeely, Tyler McNeely was pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence. He refused to take a breathalyzer and was taken to a hospital, where police ordered his blood drawn without seeking a warrant. The state argued that because alcohol was dissipating in his bloodstream, valuable evidence was being lost; therefore, a warrant was not needed.
The Supreme Court disagreed, saying that in this case, and in most cases, there is ample time to request and receive a warrant. Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “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.”
The court does allow a non-consensual blood draw if there are “exigent” circumstances, which must later be justified in court.
Special Assistant District Attorney Michael Schwartz said the court’s ruling places a burden on law enforcement and the public.
“I think the court’s decision is unfortunate, but the U.S. Supreme Court is last word on what the Fourth Amendment means and we respect their decision,” said Schwartz.
Schwartz also said he doesn’t think the decision will have a significant effect on DUI cases. He figured that it would take around an hour for law enforcement to receive a warrant to draw blood.
“We have an electronic search warrant system in place, a deputy DA on call 24 hours a day to review search warrants and a judge on call as well,” said Schwartz. “We’re planning to adopt a standard form for these search warrants.”
A 1966 Supreme Court decision, Schmerber v. California, also ruled that a person’s blood is protected under the Fourth Amendment. But the ruling contained a clause that if there were exigent circumstances in a drunk-driving case, blood could be drawn without a warrant. Many states went on to interpret the dissipation of alcohol in the blood stream as an exigent circumstance, and have been bypassing the warrant process for the past 47 years.
“California law enforcement chose to ignore the general rule reiterated in Schmerber and to operate as though the exception swallowed the rule. Judges in California went along for the ride,” said Genis. “SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) made crystal-clear that they not only meant what they said 47 years ago, but they flat-out rejected the notion that the evanescent nature of alcohol in the blood stream alone equals exigent circumstances.”
Schwartz said the court’s decision is not retroactive to previous DUI cases.