Supreme Court Set to Decide DUI Case

In early January, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Missouri v. McNeely, a case involving a charge for driving under the influence (DUI). Though the case is in some respects routine, the Court’s decision may seriously impact drivers’ Fourth Amendment rights.

The Facts Of The Case

At 2:00 a.m. on October 3, 2010, a Missouri state patrolman in Cape Girardeau stopped Tyler McNeely for speeding. After speaking with McNeely, the officer began to suspect that he had been drinking and requested that McNeely perform several routine field sobriety tests. McNeely failed the field sobriety tests and twice refused the officer’s requests to submit to a Breathalyzer test to determine his blood alcohol concentration (BAC). The officer transported McNeely to a local medical clinic where he asked McNeely whether he would submit to a blood test. Once again, McNeely refused. The officer then asked medical staff to obtain a blood sample and perform the BAC test. The results indicated that McNeely’s BAC was .154, nearly twice the legal limit. He was arrested and charged with DUI.

The Trial

Before McNeely’s trial began, his attorney moved that the blood sample be excluded from evidence because it was obtained not only without McNeely’s permission, but also without a warrant. Although the trial court agreed, the evidence was deemed admissible on appeal. The Missouri appellate court relied on a 1966 United States Supreme Court decision that held the results of nonconsensual blood tests were admissible in some circumstances, even though the police did not have a warrant to perform the test. In Schmerber v. California, the Court pointed out that the alcohol of a person charged with DUI is effectively evidence and, as time passes and the alcohol is metabolized by the suspect’s body, the evidence is destroyed. In emergency circumstances, therefore, police cannot take the extra time necessary to obtain a warrant and may order a blood test without one.

The Missouri Supreme Court overturned the appellate court and ruled that McNeely’s blood test evidence was inadmissible at trial. The state of Missouri, however, decided to appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court. The Court’s decision in McNeely is expected later this year.