After an individual is actually placed under arrest by law enforcement for suspicion of Driving Under the Influence in California, a DUI suspect is required by law to submit to their choice of a breath or a blood test to assist in determining their Blood Alcohol Content (BAC). Refusal to submit to a breath or blood test after an individual has been arrested can result in a 1-year suspension of an individual’s driver license and a minimum of 48 hours jail time if convicted. When law enforcement officers strongly suspect that a DUI suspect is under the influence, they often try to steer suspects towards choosing to have their blood drawn for testing because blood tests are a generally more accurate method of measuring BAC than breath tests. In some instances, officers will even go as far as to force a DUI suspect to have their blood drawn for testing against the suspect’s will. The United States Supreme Court has ruled however that a warrant may be required in many cases before an officer can draw blood against a DUI suspect’s will.
In Schmerber v. California (1966) 384 U.S. 757, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a warrantless blood draw after a DUI arrest was allowed in that case. The suspect in Schmerber had gotten into a car accident and police needed to secure the accident scene, investigate the accident, and then take the suspect to the hospital. Once at the hospital being treated for his injuries, the suspect in Schmerber refused to do a blood draw to test his BAC. A major factor in the Court’s Schmerber ruling was the fact that evidence of the suspect’s BAC at the time of driving was vanishing by the minute because alcohol in the blood stream often begins to diminish shortly after drinking stops and the body begins to process it. Thus, the Court found that the officer in Schmerber “might reasonably have believed that he was confronted with an emergency, in which the delay necessary to obtain a warrant, under the circumstances, threatened ‘the destruction of evidence,’” because a great amount of time was taken to investigate the scene of the accident and take the suspect to the hospital and there might not have been sufficient time to seek a warrant from a magistrate before the possible alcohol in the suspect’s system diminished to the point of no longer being valuable from an evidentiary standpoint.
In Missouri v. McNeely (2013) S. Ct. ____, the U.S Supreme Court set out to answer the question of whether the mere fact the alcohol in a DUI suspect’s blood is dissipating with each passing minute constitutes an exigent circumstances permitting law enforcement to withdraw blood from the suspect against his or her will without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their person, 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 by law enforcement is however justified if it meets one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement. One well recognized exception to the warrant requirement “applies when the exigencies of the situation make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that a warrantless search is objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.” In some circumstances, the emergency giving rise to the exception to the warrant requirement can be based on the imminent destruction of evidence. In deciding whether a law enforcement officer faced an emergency that justified acting without a warrant, the courts look to the totality of the circumstances.
In McNeely, the suspect was pulled over for allegedly speeding and crossing the centerline. After being arrested for suspicion of DUI, McNeely refused to take an evidentiary breath test and was taken to a nearby hospital to have his blood drawn. Once he was at the hospital however, McNeely refused to voluntarily give a blood sample. A law enforcement officer ordered a lab technician at the hospital to draw McNeely’s blood against his will.
The McNeely court declined to adopt a rule that the evaporation of alcohol in a DUI suspect’s body as time passes and it becomes metabolized constitutes a per se exigent circumstance justifying a warrantless blood draw against the suspect’s will. The Court held that in those cases 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 demands that they do so. Exigencies in other destruction of evidence cases may require officers to act much more quickly than in DUI cases because, where for example a suspected drug dealer can access the drugs that are the evidence of his crime to immediately flush them down a toilet or otherwise destroy them, BAC evidence from a DUI suspect in contrast naturally dissipates over time in a gradual and relatively predictable manner. Additionally, because a police officer typically must transport a drunk driving suspect to a medical facility to perform a blood test, some delay between the time of arrest or accident and the time of the blood draw is inevitable regardless of whether the police officers are required to obtain a warrant. The Court also pointed out that increases in technology since Schmerber was decided in 1966 have made it relatively easy for law enforcements officers to obtain a warrant in a short period of time without much effort. Thus, the McNeely court held that the warrantless blood draw against the suspect’s will violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures because Mcneely’s routine DUI arrest allowed the officers ample time to obtain a warrant from a detached and neutral magistrate before the blood draw took place.
The impact of the Court’s ruling in McNeely is that if police officers have a reasonable amount of time to seek a warrant, they can no longer justify warrantless searches based on the exigency exception in DUI cases where the sole exigency is the fact that the alcohol in the suspects body may be evaporating as time passes. The Court’s ruling in McNeely will have a potent impact on many DUI investigations where blood draws are involved, but it will surely have an impact on a broad range of other searches common in DUI investigations. One such example could be the instance where the DUI suspect has left their vehicle, entered their own home, and law enforcement seeks to enter the home to remove the suspect to question them and make them perform field sobriety tests and chemical tests. In these types of cases, officers often attempt to justify warrantless entry of an individual’s home on exigent circumstance grounds, citing the fact that entry was necessary because evidence was being destroyed due to the fact that the alcohol in the suspect’s body was being diminished as time passed. The ruling in McNeely seems to suggest that if officers have time to seek a warrant, they cannot enter a DUI suspect’s home without a warrant based solely on the fact that alcohol in a DUI suspect’s body is dissipating.