Can police force a DUI suspect to provide a blood sample?

This term the United States Supreme Court will hear several criminal procedure cases. One of these cases may change how some states collect evidence in DUI cases. The question the Justices must answer is whether a law enforcement officer must obtain a search warrant before forcibly drawing a suspect’s blood to determine his or her blood alcohol content.

Each state has slightly different impaired driving laws. In Maryland, for example, law enforcement officers need to obtain a warrant from a judge or a prosecutor before forcing a drunk driving suspect to take a blood test. In neighboring Delaware, deputies can require a DUI suspect to take a blood test without a warrant, if the suspect refuses the test. A Maryland drunk driving defense attorney can provide more specifics on state DUI laws.

The case being reviewed by the Supreme Court comes from a traffic stop that occurred in Missouri.

Facts of the McNeely case

A Missouri highway patrolman stopped Tyler McNeely for speeding early in the morning. The law enforcement officer observed signs of impairment and requested that McNeely complete field sobriety tests. McNeely did poorly and the officer arrested McNeely for suspected impaired driving. When the officer asked McNeely to take a breath test, he refused.

The officer did not request a warrant, took McNeely to a local hospital and directed a phlebotomist to take a blood sample. The blood sample was above the state legal limit.

As part of his DUI defense, McNeely’s attorney argued that the forced blood draw was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Missouri Court Decision

The Missouri Supreme Court had not ruled on the issue. In a review of cases from states across the country, it found several different approaches. The two divergent standards are:

  • "Per se" analysis – courts in Washington, Minnesota and Oregon allow warrantless blood tests, because alcohol dissipates quickly from the suspect’s system. This means that waiting for a warrant may allow enough time that the suspect’s BAC falls below the legal limit.
  • "Special facts" requirement – other state courts require additional factors besides the dissipation of alcohol. A car accident that results in injury may be one of these special facts that allows for a forced blood test without a warrant following a test refusal.

The Missouri court approved of the "special facts" approach. Since the case involved a routine traffic stop, the court suppressed the blood test. The meant the prosecution could not use the test result at trial.

The Supreme Court decision in this case will likely settle the split in opinion between the different state courts.

This case demonstrates that DUI laws vary state-by-state. If you are stopped and charged with DUI, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney in the state where you were stopped. An attorney can explain your rights and available defenses after reviewing the individual facts surrounding the stop.

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