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Missouri case will help clarify scope of warrant requirement

In our January 16 post, we wrote about the Missouri DWI blood-draw case that is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the Court has not yet ruled, the case continues to attract attention in the St. Louis area and across the country.

In Missouri v. McNeely, a police officer pulled a driver over for speeding. The officer said he smelled alcohol and that the driver failed field sobriety tests. When the driver refused to submit to a breathalyzer test, law enforcement officers forced him to go to hospital to have his blood drawn while handcuffed. This was done despite the lack of a search warrant.

For defenders of the Fourth Amendment, the presence of handcuffs and the absence of a warrant are a very problematic combination. Chief Justice Roberts admitted as much during oral argument. The image of someone restrained by an agent of the state, he noted, is "a pretty scary image."

Scientifically, it is fair to say a blood sample provides better evidence regarding blood-alcohol content than other methods. Breath tests are commonly used, but the machines used to give them are known to make mistakes with disquieting frequency.

Last month in Pennsylvania, for example, a judge ruled that results from a machine called the Intoxilyzer was unreliable and had to be dismissed as evidence. Other states have also seen widespread challenges to breath test results.

But, as the driver argues in Missouri v. McNeely, just because there are problems with breath tests doesn't mean law enforcement officers get to extract blood from a DWI suspect without a warrant. Not when the Fourth Amendment is on the books.

Law enforcement agencies argue that there isn't always time to get a warrant before evidence starts to dissipate. In suspected drunk driving cases, BAC does go down the longer it is since someone consumed alcohol. But in Missouri v. McNeely, the blood draw was done within 25 minutes of the initial traffic stop.

Source: "Warrantless blood test for DWI has supporters - and questions," The Kansas City Star, Mark Morris, 1-19-13

Our firm handles situation similar to those discussed in this post in St. Louis. To learn more about our practice, please visit our criminal appeals page.

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