Supreme Court to Decide if Dissipation of Alcohol in the Bloodstream is Exigent Circumstance, West Chester DUI Defense Lawyer Explains Possible Ramifications

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The U.S. Supreme Court Case of Missouri v. McNeely sets out to determine if the natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood warrants an exigent circumstance and thus allows a law enforcement officer to obtain a nonconsensual and warrantless blood sample from an allegedly drunk driver. West Chester DUI defense attorney Michael Skinner discusses the problems and violation of constitutional rights that could occur should law enforcement officers be allowed to obtain blood samples without a warrant.

"Few searches could more invasive than actually going inside a person's body, but that's what police do when they take a blood test: Stick a needle into a person," said Michael J. Skinner, West Chester DUI defense lawyer.

In the next few months, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to release its opinion in Missouri v. McNeeley (358 S.W.3d 65 (2012)) regarding whether police should be allowed to obtain a blood sample unconsented and without a warrant from a DUI suspect. The case constitutes an unprecedented attack on the constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Court should find that police may not proceed with such practices, said Michael J. Skinner, West Chester DUI lawyer.

"Few searches could be more invasive than actually going inside a person's body, but that's what police do when they take a blood test: Stick a needle into a person," Skinner said. "That the police would say they have justification to make such a search without a warrant is an affront to the Bill of Rights."

According to Court documents, in McNeely, the suspect, Tyler McNeely, was pulled over by a police officer and appeared unstable. He failed field sobriety tests and then refused a breath test, according to Court documents. The officer then took him to a hospital, where McNeely refused a blood test, according to Court documents. The officer instructed the lab technician to take the sample, anyway, without obtaining a warrant, according to documents.

The concept of "exigent circumstances" are at the heart of this case, Skinner said. While the Fourth Amendment forbids "unreasonable" searches and seizures, certain exigent circumstances may make a search and seizure reasonable, and therefore constitutional, without a warrant, Skinner said. Exigent circumstances include if the police are in hot pursuit of a suspect or need to prevent a suspect's escape, he said. If the suspect were to run in a home, the police may have justification, under the law, to chase that person inside, Skinner said.

The most relevant exigent circumstance in this case, however, is the need to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence, Skinner said. Missouri prosecutors argue that since alcohol dissipates in the blood, police needed to act immediately to obtain the evidence they needed, and did not have time to seek a warrant, according to Court documents. They rely on Schmerber v. California (384 U.S. 757 (1966)), a 1966 case in which the Court ruled it was not an unreasonable search for police officers to take blood without a warrant when police were required to take the suspect to the hospital after an accident.

The Schmerber case contained an entirely different set of facts, Skinner said. The Court, in that case, specifically said in its ruling that the necessity of medical attention justified the decision.

"Whether or not Schmerber was even correctly decided, it's simply not applicable here," Skinner said. "West Chester DUI suspects have a right against unreasonable searches, and inserting a needle into someone's arm merely because police suspect they are intoxicated and do not make the effort to get a warrant violates that right."

According to SCOTUSBlog, at oral arguments in January, all justices who spoke expressed some level of skepticism at Missouri's argument. Justice Antonin Scalia expressed reluctance to say such tests would not need a warrant, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested a decision for the state would reward inefficient jurisdictions, since it would excuse circumstances when there are not systems in place in quickly obtain a warrant, according to the Blog.

"I am optimistic that the Court will find that police need to obtain a warrant before engaging in such an invasive search," Skinner said.

Michael J. Skinner, of the Skinner Law Firm, is a West Chester defense attorney. He also represents those accused of drug charges, marijuana charges and other offenses. He serves clients in Chester, Montgomery, Lancaster and Delaware County in Pennsylvania.

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