RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case testing whether police must get a warrant before forcing someone suspected of drunk driving to get a blood test. The high court has long held that search warrants are ordinarily required when government officials order intrusions into the body, such as drawing blood from an unwilling individual. But the court has also ruled that there can be exceptions during certain emergencies. Today's case from Missouri tests how broad the definition of an emergency may be. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Tyler McNeely was driving 56 miles an hour in a 45 mile-an-hour zone at 2:00 in the morning when he was stopped by state highway Patrolman Mark Winder. The officer administered four field sobriety tests. McNeely failed all of them, and when he refused to submit to a breathalyzer test, he was arrested and taken to a hospital, where he also refused to allow his blood to be drawn. Although Officer Winder in the past had gotten a warrant without difficulty in such situations, he didn't try to get one this time. He ordered the blood drawn. It showed alcohol well above the legal limit, and McNeely was charged with driving under the influence. At trial, though, the judge threw out the blood test because it was obtained without a warrant. The Missouri State Supreme Court unanimously agreed, noting that there were no events that would have interfered with getting a warrant; there was no accident to investigate, no injury requiring medical attention, and a judge was on call to review a warrant application quickly. The state court said that under these circumstances there was no justification for failure to get a warrant before forcing an unwilling suspect to have his blood drawn. The state of Missouri appealed, contending that because alcohol dissipates in the bloodstream over time, that alone constitutes an emergency situation that justifies forcing a blood draw without a warrant.
JOHN KOESTER: In the context of a drunk driving investigation, I think that it is a minimal intrusion.
TOTENBERG: John Koester is assistant prosecuting attorney in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
KOESTER: Our main point is that under the exigent circumstances exception, when we know for certain that important, reliable and probative evidence is in the process of being destroyed, a search warrant is not necessary because during any delay to obtain a search warrant you're allowing the best evidence of the crime to dissipate and be destroyed.
TOTENBERG: But the ACLU's Steven Shapiro, representing Tyler McNeely, counters that alcohol dissipates over a matter of hours, and that here, where there was no emergency events that could have interfered, a warrant could have been quickly obtained.
STEVEN SHAPIRO: And the arresting officer testified he'd never had problems getting warrants in the past.
TOTENBERG: Indeed, Officer Winder testified that the only reason he didn't get a warrant was that he'd seen an opinion from the state prosecutor's office saying that warrants were unnecessary in routine cases. That contradicted an opinion from the county attorney's office and a state police legal advisory. The ACLU's Shapiro explains the reason for the warrant this way.
SHAPIRO: For the police to order medical professionals to put a needle into your arm and take blood is a fairly significant both intrusion on your privacy and your bodily integrity, and that ought not to be a decision that the police are making without review by a judge.
TOTENBERG: Indeed, he observes, warrants can and were obtained in other cases in a half-hour or less, and a majority of states do require such warrants. He also notes that McNeely's refusal to agree to the blood test is not without consequences, since the refusal can be used as evidence against him at trial. The Obama administration, however, backs up Missouri in its contention that the need for quick blood-alcohol testing outweighs any individual privacy interest. Time, the government argues, is of the essence, since a person's blood alcohol starts to dissipate after he or she stops drinking. The government notes that in 2010 over 10,000 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents that involved alcohol-impaired drivers. That's one death every 51 minutes. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.