DUI Case Heard by U.S. Supreme Court

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The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether police must get a warrant before ordering a blood test on an unwilling driver suspected of driving under the influence (DUI). The justices heard arguments last month in a case involving a disputed blood test from a DUI arrest in Missouri. Police stopped a car for speeding and swerving, and the driver, who had two previous drunken-driving (DUI) convictions, refused to submit to a breath test to measure the his blood alcohol level.

The justices appeared to struggle with whether the dissipation of alcohol in the blood over time is reason enough for police to call for a blood test without first getting a warrant in a DUI investigation. In siding with DUI defendant Tyler McNeely, the Missouri Supreme Court said police need a warrant to take a suspect's blood except when a delay could threaten a life or destroy potential evidence of DUI. The state court upheld an order throwing out the results of the blood test, which showed that McNeely's blood-alcohol content was 0.154 percent.

Lawyers for Missouri and the Justice Department urged the Justices to reject the state court decision and allow police to forgo the warrant process in DUI cases.  In 2010, the administration said, more than 10,000 people died in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers, an average of one death every 51 minutes.

"Here, police are facing the certain destruction of blood-alcohol evidence," Justice Department lawyer Nicole Saharsky said. But several justices suggested that law enforcement officers should at least usually try to obtain a warrant in a DUI investigation. "Why shouldn't the determination be made case to case?" Justice Antonin Scalia asked.

All 50 states have laws requiring drivers who are arrested on suspicion of driving while drunk (DUI) to consent to a blood alcohol test of some kind, and refusal to submit to the test generally leads to suspension of a driver license. 

In Missouri, a driver who won't agree to either a breath or blood test can have his license suspended for a year. The American Civil Liberties Union, representing McNeely, said that the suspension is only 30 days for drivers with no previous convictions who take the test and are found to be impaired.

There seemed to be little dispute that the arresting officer had enough evidence to get a warrant for a blood test, but chose not to. Instead, he drove McNeely to a hospital. A technician drew blood from McNeely, who was handcuffed throughout the process. The arresting officer's decision set in motion the appeal of the DUI case to the Supreme Court. A decision is expected by summer. The case is Missouri v. McNeely, 11-1425

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