17 April 2013

Law in Plain English: Missouri v. McNeely

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

Missouri v. McNeely

McNeely was pulled over for suspected DUI. He failed several field sobriety tests and refused a breathalyzer. At the hospital, he also refused a blood test. The arresting officer, without a warrant, told the hospital technician to draw the blood anyway. McNeely's lawyer sought to exclude the blood test as a warrantless search that violated the Fourth Amendment, and Missouri courts agreed. The question before the Court was whether a law enforcement officer may obtain a nonconsensual and warrantless blood sample from a drunk driver under the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement based upon the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that during routine DUI investigations where no factors other than the natural dissipation of blood alcohol suggested that there was an emergency, are not exigent circumstances. As a result, nonconsensual warrantless blood tests violated McNeely’s right to be free from unreasonable searches of his person. The practical impact of this decision is that law enforcement will usually be required to obtain a warrant prior to drawing blood from a DUI suspect, absent other circumstances (i.e., an accident, the potential destruction of evidence).
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