Blood Alcohol Tests Require Search Warrants – Maybe (p. 2)

Blood Alcohol Tests Require Search Warrants – Maybe (p. 2)

in Drunk Driving, on

We are continuing our discussion of the United States Supreme Court opinion in a drunk driving case. The question for the court was whether the police could obtain a blood sample from a suspect even if the suspect has not consented to the test. The court’s answer was a resounding, “Probably not. Not every time. They really shouldn’t. Well, at least in this case, no.”

In North Carolina and every other state, law enforcement officers must obtain a search warrant before they conduct a search. There are exceptions, of course, and one of those exceptions is the “exigent circumstances rule.” The rule allows officers to conduct a search without a warrant in emergency situations. Emergencies are generally understood to be situations in which a person is in physical danger or in which a delay could allow a suspect to escape or evidence to be destroyed or concealed.

The police in this case believed that evidence would dissipate if they waited for a warrant. The evidence was the alcohol in the defendant’s bloodstream. The court had to decide if the risk of the alcohol dissipating was important enough to be classified as an “exigent circumstance.”

The majority said it was not. Rather, the majority said that a warrant should be the default in cases where an officer believes a blood test is necessary. The opinion went on to say that there was no need to offer a blanket protection for officers to order blood draws without a warrant; the majority added that states and municipalities have worked to make obtaining a warrant a much faster process in DWI cases like this. The requirement of a warrant, the majority said, does not hamper the administration of justice in these cases.

Others on the court believed the destruction of evidence argument but did not believe a warrant should never be required. Only one justice, Justice Clarence Thomas, said that the dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream did qualify as an exigent circumstance and that officers should never need a warrant to order blood tests.

In North Carolina, then, the decision means that officers may have a higher standard to meet when ordering a blood test of a suspected drunk driver after the driver has refused consent. Court analysts seem to believe that the issue is not laid to rest.

Source: Thomson Reuters News & Insight, “Supreme Court rules warrants usually needed for blood tests,” Lawrence Hurley, April 17, 2013

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