The Supreme Court issued an important ruling earlier this week in the Missouri v. McNeely case. The justices rejected the argument advanced by the government of Missouri that officers should never be required to secure a warrant prior to obtaining a blood test against suspected drunk drivers. Instead, the Court held that officers are generally required to obtain judicial authorization prior to forcing a blood test.
The case involved a man, James McNeely, who was pulled over back in 2010 by a Missouri state trooper on suspicion of drunk driving. McNeely failed the field sobriety tests the officer administered and refused to voluntarily submit to a breath test. As a result, the arresting officer took McNeely to a local hospital where he was strapped down and had his blood forcibly removed, all without ever obtaining a warrant.
McNeely tried to block the use of the results of the blood draw, which showed he was indeed intoxicated at the time of the test, saying the results, were illegally obtained. Prosecutors argued that given the time of night and location of the arrest, a warrant could take up to two hours to procure which would have allowed a substantial amount of alcohol to leave the man’s system, thus prejudicing their case and making it harder to prosecute McNeely and other drunk drivers.
Justice Sonya Sotomayor, who wrote for the majority, disagreed with Missouri and the Obama administration and held that police generally have enough time to secure a warrant before conducting a blood test. Though Justice Sotomayor admitted that there could be some emergencies that might require such extreme action, the Court decided that such cases would be handled on an individual basis and judged on the merits of the particular situation.
Though the decision was good in that it upheld McNeely’s constitutional rights, many have criticized the Court for its fractured opinions. For one thing, four separate opinions were issued in the case, creating some confusion about what exactly the majority of justices agreed on. There was the majority opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, two concurring opinions and one dissent, by Justice Thomas.
In one of the concurring opinions, Chief Justice Roberts roundly criticized the majority for failing to come up with a bright line rule. Roberts said that in the future it will be difficult for police officers to interpret the McNeely opinion and leave them confused about what exactly they are required by law to do in drunk driving cases. Sadly, rather than lay out a clear plan, Roberts concocted an equally muddled approach. Roberts wrote that in cases where an officer believes there is enough time to secure a warrant, then a warrant should be secured. However, in cases where a “reasonable officer” would believe there was not enough time to secure a warrant and preserve evidence, then a warrantless blood test can proceed.
The opinion was seen as a rebuke of warrantless searches by officers, though it did not go as far as some had hoped. After all, while Justice Sotomayor sided with McNeely and held that the results of the blood draw should be excluded from evidence, the majority was not willing to go so far as to say that a warrant was required in every such blood test case in the future. The wiggle room created by the opinion may lead to confusion in the future.
Source: “Forced Blood Tests Often Need Warrant, U.S. Court Says,” by Greg Stohr, published at Bloomberg.com.