Supreme Court case is changing DUI defense

A little more than a year ago the United States Supreme Court decided a case that is having a significant effect on DUI cases around the country. In April, 2013, the Court decided the case of Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S.Ct. 1552, 185 L.Ed.2d 696 (2013). This post, and several posts to come, will look at McNeely and discuss its effect on DUI cases. This post will provide a background to that discussion.

Police in the state of Missouri stopped Mr. McNeely because he was driving erratically. After field sobriety tests he was arrested for DUI. The officer took him to the station for a breath test. Mr. McNeely refused that test. The officer then took him to the hospital where he was given a blood test, despite his refusals. The officer did not obtain a warrant for the blood test. Mr. McNeely’s blood test result was over the legal limit.

Mr. McNeely’s lawyer filed a motion to suppress the blood test result. He argued in that motion that the police were required to get a warrant to draw Mr. McNeely’s blood, before they drew his blood. Because they did not obtain a warrant that blood draw violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Mr. McNeely’s lawyer asked the court to exclude the test because of that constitutional violation.

The Missouri court judge who heard the motion to suppress agreed with Mr. McNeely’s lawyer. The test was ordered suppressed, meaning that the State of Missouri could not use the test result at trial. The State of Missouri appealed that decision to the Missouri courts. Both the Missouri Court of Appeals and the Missouri Supreme Court agreed with Mr. McNeely’s lawyer and the first judge. They upheld the order that the test should be suppressed.

The State of Missouri then asked the United States Supreme Court to hear the case. The Supreme Court agreed and issued a writ of certiorari. A writ of certiorari is an order to a lower court, in this case to the Missouri Supreme Court, ordering that court forward the case to the United States Supreme Court so that the case may be heard.

In the United States Supreme Court the State of Missouri made a very limited argument. They asked the Supreme Court for a rule that said a warrant is never required in a DUI case because alcohol dissipates (goes out of the body) so fast that there is no time to get a warrant. This exception to the warrant requirement is called an “exigency” or an “exigent circumstance.” Exigency circumstances are limited exceptions to the warrant requirement. Other exigent circumstances include searching a motor vehicle without a warrant because the vehicle can be easily moved, and seizing contraband without a warrant, such as drugs, because the drugs are in plain sight.

The United States Supreme Court refused the State of Missouri’s request. The Court noted that previous cases discussing the dissipation of alcohol and exigency occurred when it was very difficult and time-consuming to obtain a warrant. Today modern technology makes it very easy to obtain a warrant quickly. The Court agreed with the Missouri courts that in this case a warrant was required and the test result should be excluded at trial.

Despite this decision, police still routinely obtain blood tests without attempting to get a warrant. Lawyers around the country are challenging this practice. Even more interesting, is that the McNeely ruling arguably applies to breath tests as well as blood tests. In upcoming blogs I will analyze the McNeely case, discuss its possible impact on DUI cases, and look at some of the cases around the country that rely on McNeely.

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