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Forced Blood Test in Drunk Driving Case Gets Court Review

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether police must get a search warrant before forcing a drunken driving suspect to have blood drawn, accepting a case that will shape privacy rights on the road.

The justices today said they will hear Missouri’s contention that the Constitution doesn’t require police to take the time to get judicial approval given how quickly alcohol dissipates in the bloodstream. The Missouri Supreme Court disagreed, saying officers typically must seek a warrant.

That decision “actually requires police officers to stand by and allow the best, most probative evidence to be destroyed during a drunk-driving investigation,” Missouri argued in its appeal. Lower courts are divided on the question.

The case may have widespread day-to-day implications. More than 1.4 million people are arrested each year in the U.S. for driving under the influence, according to FBI statistics. At least 27 states wouldn’t be directly affected because they have laws barring nonconsensual blood draws in the absence of a warrant, according to court papers filed by Tyler G. McNeely, the defendant in the case.

McNeely was pulled over for speeding in 2010 by a state highway patrolman in southeast Missouri and refused to take a breath test after failing field sobriety tests. The officer then took McNeely to a nearby medical laboratory, where a technician drew blood over the suspect’s objection.

McNeely’s lawyers say the Supreme Court shouldn’t categorically exempt drunken driving cases from the normal rule that police must get a warrant for intrusive bodily searches.

Losing Evidence

“While every drunk-driving investigation will involve the eventual dissipation of a suspect’s blood alcohol content, not every case will involve a risk of losing evidence of intoxication before search,” argued McNeely, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Supreme Court last ruled on the issue in 1966. In that decision, the court said the warrant requirement didn’t apply in the case of a man whose blood was drawn in a hospital about two hours after he was involved in an automobile accident. The court said that case involved “special facts.”

The high court in other rulings has said police don’t need a warrant in situations of “exigent circumstances,” as when evidence is about to be destroyed.

The justices will consider today’s case and rule in the nine-month term that starts in October. The case is Missouri v. McNeely, 11-1425.

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