In yet another victory for the Fourth Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Missouri v. McNeely that police may not forcibly take blood from a drunk driving suspect without a warrant. Insisting that the Fourth Amendment requires judicial authorization for such drastic action except in emergency situations, the Court rejected arguments by state officials asking it to establish a per se rule that all cases of drunk driving present “exigent circumstances” allowing police to extract blood from a suspect without a warrant.
The Rutherford Institute filed an amicus curiae brief in the case on behalf of Tyler McNeely, who was forced to give a blood sample after being arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Although McNeely refused to submit to a blood test, the arresting officer ordered hospital personnel to extract his blood anyway and test it for alcohol levels. In weighing in on the case, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued that the state’s interests in ensuring public safety and discouraging drunk driving could have been realized in a manner that secured the desired blood alcohol evidence while at the same time protecting McNeely’s constitutional rights in keeping with the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement and prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.
In accord with the Institute’s brief, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion held that forced extraction of a person’s blood is “an invasion of bodily integrity [that] implicates an individual’s most personal and deep-rooted expectations of privacy” and, absent some emergency, should not be allowed unless a judge has found probable cause to justify the intrusion.
While public safety is of great concern, especially when it comes to serious offenses such as driving under the influence of alcohol, Americans’ constitutional rights cannot be wholly discounted and conveniently discarded. This case has far-reaching implications that go beyond one man’s run-in with the police. The Supreme Court is to be commended for recognizing that if we allow government agents broad powers to invade our bodies without consent or court order, the bodily integrity of all persons in the United States will be in serious jeopardy.
The case arose out of an incident that took place in in October 2010 when Tyler McNeely was stopped by a Missouri state highway patrolman. Based upon his behavior, the patrolman suspected that McNeely was intoxicated. The patrolman led McNeely through a series of field sobriety tests and based upon the results, arrested him for drunk driving. After McNeely refused to submit to a breathalyzer test, the patrolman took him to a nearby hospital in order to secure a sample of his blood and test it for alcohol levels. Although McNeely refused to consent to a blood test, the patrolman ordered a hospital lab technician to take a blood sample from McNeely. At no point did the officer attempt to obtain a warrant authorizing the extraction.
In weighing in on the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys stressed that forcible bodily intrusions of the kind inflicted on McNeely are among the most serious abuses of government authority which the Fourth Amendment was meant to forbid, and that such intrusions should be allowed only in extremely urgent circumstances. Institute attorneys also noted that enforcement of drunk driving laws does not suffer when warrants for blood extraction are required, many of which can be obtained within a relatively short time, often within 30 minutes of an arrest. — John W. Whitehead