Monday, April 29, 2013

High court says no to warrantless blood draws - or does it?

Tyler McNeely was heading home from a local watering hole one evening when a police officer stopped him for speeding and crossing the center dividing line. You shouldn't be surprised to find out that the officer noted Mr. McNeely had the smell of alcohol on his breath, red eyes and slurred speech. Mr. McNeely told the officer he had had a couple of beers.

Apparently Mr. McNeely didn't perform the roadside calisthenics to the degree of precision the officer desired and he was promptly handcuffed and stuffed into the back of a patrol car. The officer asked Mr. McNeely if he'd be willing to provide further evidence against himself by taking a breath test. Mr. McNeely declined the invitation so the officer headed to a nearby medical facility.

Now excuse me for a few seconds while I climb up on my soapbox. By not taking the officer up on his request to blow into a machine, Mr. McNeely violated the implied consent statute in Missouri. Now I'm guessing that Mr. McNeely wasn't told when he applied for his driver's license that he was agreeing to blow into the state's breath test machine whenever an officer thought he was intoxicated. I'm also guessing that none of y'all were told that when they handed you that laminated card with the awful picture on the front.

At the hospital the officer asked Mr. McNeely if he'd be willing to sit down and have a needle jabbed into his arm for the purpose of securing evidence that would be used against him. To no one's surprise, Mr. McNeely again declined the invitation.

The officer then grabbed a nurse who drew the blood. Left unsaid in the sanitized Court opinion is just how the officer managed to get the blood sample in the first place. If someone is unwilling to give blood voluntarily asking them pretty please with sugar on top isn't likely to change their mind. Was Mr. McNeely strapped down in a chair? Did an officer use his weight to subdue Mr. McNeely? Was he held down by orderlies?

Whatever the case, it certainly wasn't a pleasant experience and I'm guessing that if a judge were subjected to a forcible blood draw that the opinions we see on these types of cases would be very different. I'm not thinking a judge would find a blood draw to be "minimally invasive" when a person is tied down or held down. I don't think a judge would be so clinical if it was she was felt that needed go into the vein.

But I digress.

Mr. McNeely was charged with driving while intoxicated. He moved to suppress the blood test results on the grounds that the warrantless "search" was unreasonable. The state argued that there were exigent circumstances - namely that blood dissipates in the blood and if they didn't get their hands on that vial of blood it might make it harder for them to prove their case (or something like that). The trial court granted Mr. McNeely's motion as did the Missouri Supreme Court.

The state then appealed to the United States Supreme Court to determine whether or not the natural dissipation of alcohol in blood qualified as an exigent circumstance to circumvent that thing we call the Fourth Amendment.

Now let's just set aside the fact that for years prosecutors made DWI cases, and obtained convictions, with nothing more than the officer's testimony of what he or she observed at the scene. There are still plenty of cases tried today with nothing more than the officer's testimony and a videotape of the defendant doing a set of roadside exercises. Results from breath or blood tests are needed to pin a DWI on a motorist - they are more of a cudgel used to force a defendant to plead guilty.

There were no exigent circumstances in Mr. McNeely's case. In this day of No Refusal Weekends and judges willing to sign faxed warrant affidavits it's not a daunting task to convince a judge to sign a warrant authorizing the police to jab a needle in someone's arm. Which is precisely what the Nine in Robes decided.

Well, to be fair, the Court said that the facts in Mr. McNeely's case led them to conclude there were no exigent circumstances but they weren't prepared to stretch the ruling to other cases. Instead they decided that each case shall be examined based on the facts peculiar to the case. In other words, courts will be allowed to consider just how badly the defendant behaved before ruling on whether or not the Fourth Amendment applies to his case.

Would the decision have been different had there been an accident? What if Mr. McNeely's alcohol concentration had been higher than .015? Exactly what bad facts would have made this case come out differently?

The dissipation of alcohol in blood is not an exigent circumstance. It is a scientific fact. And, even if you want to call it an exigent circumstance - it's an exigent circumstance created by the police. As such there should be no exception to the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable search and seizure. Decisions such as McNeely only serve to weaken our constitutional protections and turn our rights into balancing tests.

There is no balancing test for a constitutionally protected right. That right is either violated or not. The citizenry are either afforded protection from the state or they're not. Our rights are not ours through legislative fiat and it's high time the Supreme Court take a hard look at the damage to the Bill of Rights its endless variety of balancing tests have cause.

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