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Supreme Court Has Mixed Feelings Over Warrantless DUI Blood Tests

As law enforcement seeks more flexibility to determine whether a suspected drunk driver is over the limit, the Supreme Court appears clearly divided about whether police can obtain a blood test without a warrant from a judge to determine intoxication levels.

The justices are debating among themselves which types of legitimate emergency circumstances such as an inability to contact a magistrate late at night, might allow taking blood from an uncooperative suspect.

Because alcohol concentration dissipates over time, any delays waiting to get a judge to sign off on a blood sample can potentially risk obtaining a DUI conviction, law enforcement wants flexibility to conduct such “searches” without warrants.

Meanwhile, civil rights advocates say these kinds of “invasive” medical procedures are unnecessary and unconstitutional, absent any extraordinary circumstances negating a warrant. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure and permits warrants only in cases of probable cause.

The justices have said the warrant requirement can be suspended under extraordinary circumstances, such as the risk of endangering lives or destruction of evidence. However, the court has also said state intrusions into one’s own body generally require prior review and approval by a judge.

Neither states nor criminal suspects in general should expect a clear ruling in their favor. It is more likely the court will issue a nuanced opinion. A victory allowing automatic blood draws would not stop other states from maintaining strict standards for their use. Indeed, the simple threat of a needle may be incentive enough for suspected drunk drivers to agree to less invasive breath tests.

The practical effect may be to force police to streamline and speed up the warrant process, so that drunk drivers are tested before it is too late to preserve the evidence.

As they tried to figure out how to draw a line between what is reasonable and what is not, several justices asked about other tests for measuring alcohol content, including the familiar breath analysis test and urine samples. Currently, all 50 states have measures known as implied-consent laws that require drivers who are arrested on suspicion of driving while drunk to consent to a blood alcohol test. Refusal to do so generally leads to suspension of a driver license. In addition, prosecutors can use the refusal against a defendant at trial.

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2 North Central Avenue, 26th Floor
Phoenix AZ 85004