Supreme Court to rule on validity of warrantless blood alcohol tests

When an officer suspects that you are driving drunk, can you be forced to undergo a blood test against your will? The United States Supreme Court ruled on this case and held that the mere rapid rate of dissipation of alcohol is not enough to justify warrantless blood draw. The Prosecutor must show more to justify the blood draw without a warrant, for example, that the Magistrate was unavailable or too far away. This does not change the law in North Carolina significantly as our NC Court of Appeals held similarly in 2010 in State vs Fletcher.

The case, Missouri v. McNeely, started when a Missouri highway patrol officer pulled over Tyler McNeely for speeding one night. During the stop, the officer testified that McNeely's behavior gave him cause to believe that he was driving drunk. The officer ordered McNeely to undergo a field sobriety test, which McNeely performed poorly. The officer asked McNeely to consent to a chemical test to measure his blood alcohol level, but he refused.

After McNeely's refusal, the officer drove him to a clinic and ordered a staff member to draw his blood, despite his objections. The results showed that the level of alcohol in McNeely's blood was almost twice the legal limit. McNeely was subsequently charged with DUI.

Before the trial began, McNeely's lawyers made a motion to exclude the results of the blood test. To support their motion, they argued that McNeely's blood test results are inadmissible as evidence, because there was no search warrant to compel him to take the test.

Prosecutors attempted to refute McNeely's argument by arguing that in the time it would take for police to get a warrant, the alcohol in McNeely's system would be metabolized. They argued that officers were legally justified in drawing the blood without a warrant, because any delay would have led to destruction of evidence.

The trial court judge ruled in favor of McNeely and barred the blood test from being used as evidence. On appeal, the Missouri appeals court reversed the trial court's ruling. McNeely appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. The court upheld the trial court's ruling, saying that a warrant was required to compel the blood test, because there were no "exigent circumstances" that would legally justify taking the blood without a warrant.

Across the nation, courts have different opinions on whether the metabolism of alcohol in a suspect's bloodstream comprises an emergency that would justify law enforcement to force a suspect to submit to a blood test without a warrant. Since the case has been appealed to the United States Supreme Court, it will have the final say on the issue.

Effect on North Carolina law

North Carolina law makes it clear that an officer may take a DUI suspect's blood against his or her will if the officer acts pursuant to a search warrant. However, a North Carolina statute says that if a DUI suspect refuses to submit to a test to determine blood alcohol level, an officer, without a warrant, can require the suspect to submit to a blood or urine test, if the officer reasonably believes that the delay caused getting a warrant would result in the dissipation of alcohol in the suspect's blood. The outcome of the McNeely case could affect the validity of this statute.

The McNeely decision is not expected until next spring, so how it will affect similar laws nationwide remains to be seen. In the meantime, if you have been arrested for DUI, it is important to seek the advice of an experienced criminal defense lawyer. An attorney can ensure that your rights are protected and work to minimize the negative repercussions of the charges.