Supreme Court Issue: Can Cops Take a Blood Sample Without a Warrant?


The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case testing whether police must get a warrant before forcing a drunken driving suspect to have his blood drawn, NPR reports. The court has long held that search warrants are ordinarily required when government officials order intrusions into the body, reasoning that such intrusions amount to a bodily search and thus are covered by the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The court also has said there are exceptions to that requirement in what are called exigent situations — emergencies. Today’s case tests how broad the definition of an emergency may be.

Tyler McNeely of Missouri won a ruling throwing out his blood test in a suspected drunk driving incident because it was obtained without a warrant. Prosecutor John Koester says, “When we know for certain that important, reliable, evidence is in the process of being destroyed, a search warrant is not necessary.” The American Civil Liberties Union’s Steven Shapiro, representing McNeely, says, “For the police to order medical professionals to put a needle into your arm and take blood is a fairly significant [ ] intrusion on your privacy and your bodily integrity. And that ought not to be a decision that the police are making without review by a judge.” The Obama administration backs up Missouri’s contention that the need for quick blood-alcohol testing outweighs any individual privacy interest. Time, the government argues, is of the essence, because a person’s blood alcohol starts to dissipate after he or she stops drinking. In 2010, more than 10,000 people were killed in motor-vehicle accidents involving alcohol-impaired drivers.

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