New Jersey DWI – update in the law – United States Supreme Court rules warrant required to take blood from a drunk driver.

On April 17, 2013 the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion in the Case Missouri v. McNeely that Police Officers are required to obtain a warrant to take blood from an individual suspected of drunk driving, absent exigent circumstances or consent.

Click here for the Court’s decision.

The McNeely Case is interesting in that it explored principles of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the warrant requirement, and numerous cases involving destruction of evidence. Further, it illustrates the different opinions of each Justice, and the fact that new law has been created without the consent of all the Justices. It is a “readable” decision, an opportunity to perhaps review a United States Supreme Court decision that is understandable to non – lawyers, and relevant to our daily lives – I have a Fourth Amendment argument scheduled for Court today in reference to a warrantless search of a car that yielded a small amount of marijuana and a criminal charge against my client, a passenger.

Like many search and seizure cases, the McNeely Case illustrates that constitutional law is most often forged from cases involving violations of law. Most of the important search and seizure cases involve situations where consequences of conviction are serious. Based on Mr. McNeely’s driving history, he was facing a four year prison term in Missouri for this DWI violation.  The Fourth Amendment cases that work their way up through the justice system often involve situations where Police conduct a warrantless search of a home, car or person and find evidence that can be used to convict an individual. The defendant’s seek suppression of the evidence based on violations of the Constitution because they are facing incarceration or a criminal record. The State seeks to prove that a recognized exception to the warrant requirement existed.

Many will argue that they have nothing to hide and welcome police searches, and therefore so should everyone.  Individuals are allowed to provide consent to a search, thereby negating the requirement of a warrant. But the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment, clarified by cases such as McNeely, are critical to the maintenance of our fundamental right to be “…secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…”

The ends do not justify the means in constitutional law.  In the United States, it is through these types of cases that the parameters of our right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures are developed.

A link to the McNeely opinion is attached to this post. Note that the opinion starts with a syllabus which is not the opinion of the Court but rather has been prepared for the convenience of the reader. The actual opinion of Justice Sotomayer starts on page 5 of the link.

In her opinion, Justice Sotomayer cites the Fourth Amendment, that provides, in relevant part, “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.”

A warrantless search and seizure is presumed to be invalid. The burden is upon the State to prove the overall reasonableness and validity of a warrantless search. A warrantless search is reasonable only if it falls within a recognized exception to the warrant requirement.  In the McNeely Case, the Supreme Court stated that the physical intrusion of obtaining blood implicates an individual’s most personal and deep-rooted expectation of privacy.

The exception to the warrant requirement triggered by the facts of the Case involved the issues of emergency, need and exigencies of the situation which make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that a warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

In McNeely, the Defendant argued that the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream creates an exigency that suffices on it’s own to justify an exception to the warrant requirement for non-consensual blood testing in drunk driving investigations. The State’s argument suggests that if the police officers must go through the process of obtaining a warrant, the time delay will result in a dissipation of alcohol in the defendant’s bloodstream such that the Police will not be able to ascertain his blood alcohol level. The United States Supreme Court found that dissipation, with no other emergent issues, does not establish a per- se exigency that suffices to create an exception to the warrant requirement.

The Supreme Court stated, “…while the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support a finding of exigency in a specific case… it does not do so categorically. Whether a warrantless blood test of a drunk driving suspect is reasonable must be determined case-by-case based on the totality of the circumstances.” The Supreme Court opinion continued, “… while the desire for a bright-line rule is understandable, the Fourth Amendment will not tolerate adoption of an overly broad categorical approach that would dilute the warrant requirement in a context where significant privacy interests are at stake.”

The Supreme Court concluded, “…we hold 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.”

Note that Justice Sotomayer wrote the majority opinion. She was joined by Justice Scalia, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Kagan in specific parts of her opinion and by those three and Justice Kennedy in other parts of her decision. Justice Kennedy filed a separate opinion concurring with Justice Sotomayer. Chief Justice Roberts filed an opinion concurring in part and in dissenting in part, in which Justices Breyer and Alito joint.  Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion.

Chief Justice Roberts opinion starts with, “a police officer reading this Court’s opinion would have no idea- no idea- what the Fourth Amendment requires of him, once he decides to obtain a blood sample from a drunk driving suspect who has refused a breathalyzer test. I have no quarrel with the court’s “totality of the circumstances” as a general matter; that is what our cases require. But the circumstances and drunk driving cases are often typical, and the Court should be able to offer guidance on how police should handle cases like the one before us.” Justice Sotomayer specifically answered Chief Justice Robert’s concern in the text of her opinion.

Justice Thomas dissenting opinion states, “because the body’s natural metabolization of alcohol inevitably destroys evidence of the crime, it constitutes an exigent circumstance. As a result, I would hold that a warrantless blood draw does not violate the Fourth Amendment.”

In all, the majority ruled that dissipation of alcohol in blood is not an exigency in and of itself that creates an exception to the warrant requirement, and that is now our law.

Click here for the Court’s decision.

 

 

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