Supreme Court: Officers Must Get a Warrant Before DUI Blood Test in Most Cases

U.S. Supreme CourtA Supreme Court decision may end the practice of Las Vegas police officers forcibly strapping down and sticking a needle in DUI suspects without a warrant. In the case, Missouri v. McNeely, the court ruled that the police must obtain a warrant before drawing the blood of a DUI suspect, unless the police are able to demonstrate an exception to the warrant requirement established in the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Tyler McNeely was pulled over by a Missouri state trooper. The trooper said he was unstable, and asked him to perform a field sobriety test. McNeely consented to the test and failed. The officer asked him to take a breath test, which he refused. The trooper took him to a hospital to take a blood test. McNeely refused the test, but the trooper ordered the lab technician to proceed, anyway. Prosecutors attempted to use the blood test as evidence.

The issue at hand was whether there was a sufficient “exigent circumstance” to force a DUI blood test without a warrant. An exigent circumstance is a special circumstance in which certain procedural matters that arise from the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizures, like warrants, can be skipped over. One such recognized exigent circumstance is when evidence is likely to be destroyed.   Recently in the news with the Boston bombing suspect, we have seen the public safety exception discussed as another exception to the warrant requirement.

In the McNeely case, the government argued that because alcohol naturally dissipates out of the blood over time, the evidence of the suspects BAC is being destroyed and therefore meets an exception to the warrant requirement.  The government argued that the exigent circumstances of destruction of evidence allows the police to forcibly draw blood from DUI suspects.  In the case, the prosecutors relied on Schmerber v. California, a 1966 case in which the Court ruled admissible a DUI blood test when the suspect was taken to a hospital for injuries.

The Court rejected the government’s arguments. While they did not overturn Schmerber, they said the case was only applicable to very narrow circumstances. In this case, the police could get a warrant, and either chose not to or were too disorganized to proceed. While the Court did not go so far as to say a warrant is necessary every time the police wish to draw blood, they said that when police can “reasonably obtain” a warrant, “without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search,” they must do so before obtaining an unconsented blood test.

The implications on Las Vegas DUI prosecution are huge. Under Nevada law, if a DUI suspect refuses a blood test, police may use “reasonable force” to obtain the sample — in other words, strap the suspect does and insert a needle — without a warrant. The justification for this law has been that Nevada drivers give implied consent to a blood test. However, under the McNeely ruling, this practice is likely to considered unconstitutional.

Currently, if a driver is pulled over in Las Vegas and the officer starts demanding any kind of test, including breath and blood tests, it would be in that driver’s best interests to refuse the DUI test. Unlike many other states, there are no consequences for refusal, like license suspension, in Nevada.

If the officer then forcibly straps the suspect down to take the test without a warrant, under the McNeely ruling, that test is likely inadmissible in court. The primary evidence against the suspect can no longer be used, often making for a weak case for the prosecution.

Due to this new United States Supreme Court ruling in McNeely, the state of Nevada DUI cases is in a state of flux.  This means that issues that were usually not litigated, because of long-established precedence, should be litigated all over again.  It is important that you discuss your case with an experienced Las Vegas DUI attorney who has a good understanding of the changing law and how it can affect your case.

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