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Supreme Court: Utah was right; DUI blood tests do require warrant

The U.S. Supreme Court has made its decision in Missouri v. McNeely, in which a man who was subjected to a blood alcohol test against his will so that police could prove he was driving under the influence of alcohol. The man appealed his DUI conviction on the grounds that forcing him to submit to a blood test violated his constitutional rights. Today, the high court ruled that it did.

While blood alcohol tests are more prone to error than many people realize, they are generally considered to be the best way to tell if someone has been driving drunk. The State of Missouri, joined by the federal government, had hoped the Supreme Court would rule that warrants would never be required in DUI cases. Their most notable argument was that alcohol in the blood dissipates over time, making it urgent to obtain the suspect's blood immediately.

The high courts of both Utah and Iowa, however, have already ruled that warrants are required by their own constitutions before law enforcement can administer such an intrusive test. The justices took specific notice of Utah's ruling and of our electronic search warrant process, which makes obtaining the warrants much faster.

Eight of the nine justices agreed that dissipation of alcohol in the blood is an insufficient reason to violate a citizen's rights.

While the court did not spell out whether there were any circumstances in which a warrantless blood draw would be legal, Justice Kennedy indicated in a separate opinion that the court was interested in the question.

Again, all eyes may turn toward Utah for guidance. According to a spokesperson for the Utah Highway Patrol, which makes the most DUI arrests of any law enforcement agency in the state, troopers are trained that warrantless blood draws may be acceptable in limited circumstances. For example, it might be legal to perform the test if the suspect were unconscious or about to be taken to surgery.

Whether those circumstances in fact justify what would otherwise be a constitutional violation is now open to question. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has said it is a violation of the federal constitution, any state supreme court rulings could be overruled by federal ones in future cases.

Source: The Salt Lake Tribune, "Utah mentioned as Supreme Court rejects routine no-warrant DUI blood tests," Nate Carlisle and the Associated Press, April 17, 2013

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