The United States Supreme Court heard arguments recently in the case of a Missouri man who refused to submit to sobriety testing after an arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence. The arresting officer took a blood specimen from the man anyway, despite the lack of both consent and a warrant. The state appealed the trial court’s order suppressing the blood evidence all the way to the high court. The case, Missouri v. McNeely, No. 11-1425, presents several important questions of Fourth Amendment rights and the extent of police officers’ power to gather evidence without a warrant. From the perspective of a personal injury attorney and safe-driving advocate, the case may bring significant changes to how evidence is gathered in both criminal investigations of DUI and in civil claims for damages.
A state highway patrolman pulled the defendant, Tyler McNeely, over late one night. According to the officer, McNeely presented the “tell-tale signs of intoxication,” and the officer could smell alcohol on McNeely’s breath. Missouri v. McNeely, 358 S.W.3d 65, 67-68 (Mo. 2012). McNeely did poorly on field sobriety tests, so the officer placed him under arrest. He refused to consent to breath or blood tests. The officer, who later testified that he believed he did not need a warrant to collect evidence of intoxication, drove McNeely to a hospital and had a phlebotomist draw a blood sample for testing. Before trial, McNeely moved to suppress the blood evidence, arguing that the warrantless blood test violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court agreed, and prosecutors appealed the order to the state supreme court.
The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s order, citing a U.S. Supreme Court case setting strict limits on the ability of law enforcement to collect blood evidence from DUI suspects without a warrant. Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757 (1966). Schmerber involved a DUI suspect who was injured in an accident. The suspect was placed under arrest at the hospital, and the arresting officer instructed a doctor to take a blood sample without a warrant. The Supreme Court held that, while blood tests certainly implicate Fourth Amendment rights, the accident investigation presented “special facts” justifying the warrantless intrusion. Id. at 770-71, McNeely, 358 S.W.3d at 69. The fact that alcohol breaks down in the body, combined with the fact that the suspect in Schmerber needed transport to the hospital, limited the time in which evidence could be collected. The Schmerber court held that these “special facts” justified the warrantless search. The Missouri Supreme Court, however, found no similar “special facts” in McNeely’s circumstances, holding that the dissipation of alcohol in the human body, by itself, did not justify the search.
The U.S. Supreme Court will now consider whether blood alcohol metabolism is sufficient justification, on its own, for warrantless blood tests in DUI investigations. For personal injury lawyers, the decision could have an important impact on the gathering of evidence in accident cases. Current law only allows warrantless searches when the suspect is injured, but not necessarily when the suspect injures another person. The Supreme Court must balance important Fourth Amendment rights with the need for speedy investigation.
Auto accident attorney Doug Horn is an advocate for safe driving in the greater Kansas City area. He represents the rights of people who have suffered injuries or lost loved ones due to the negligent or illegal conduct of others. Contact us today online or at (816) 795-7500 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.