On April 17, the United States Supreme Court decided Missouri v. McNeely. The question presented to the Court was, Does the natural elimination of alcohol from the body create a per se rule allowing the State to perform a blood test without a warrant in a DUI case? The Court held that it does not. Justice Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Kagan. Justice Kennedy also wrote a concurring opinion. Chief Justice Roberts wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, which was joined by Justices Breyer and Alito. Justice Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion.
In what was described as a “routine DWI case”, Tyler G. McNeely was stopped for speeding in October 2010. He failed several field sobriety tests and refused to submit to a portable breath test. McNeely was then taken to a local hospital to have his blood drawn, to which he did not consent. Missouri, like every other state in the country, has an implied consent law, which requires drivers to submit to a blood test if probable cause exists that they are driving under the influence. McNeely’s BAC measured .154% and he was charged with DWI.
McNeely argued that the administration of a blood test without his consent or a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The State argued that the metabolization of alcohol and gradual decrease in BAC necessarily justifies a blood test without a warrant. The trial court ruled in favor of McNeely. Prosecutors appealed this decision, and a state appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision. McNeely appealed this decision, and the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s decision. Finally, prosecutors appealed the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision, and the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on September 25, 2012.
In her majority opinion, Justice Sotomayor disagreed with the State’s argument that the gradual reduction of a suspect’s BAC creates an exception to the need for a search warrant before drawing blood. As set forth in Kentucky v. King (2011) and other cases, there is an “exigent circumstances” exception to the need for a search warrant in cases where it is not practical to obtain one. Examples of these exigent circumstances include police entering a house that is on fire, chasing a suspect in “hot pursuit”, or entering a building to render aid. The State argued that DUI cases, per se, have “exigent circumstances”. The Court disagreed.
An important part of Justice Sotomayor’s reasoning is that there is already a significant delay between when a person was pulled over and when his blood is drawn, i.e. a portable breath test and/or field sobriety test will be administered and it takes time to drive to the hospital. By the time blood is drawn, an individual’s BAC will already have decreased by some amount, meaning that no test will ever be completely accurate. And since a search warrant often takes only minutes to obtain (through means such as a phone call, video conference, or email), the additional time delay is not significant enough to justify a categorical exception to the search warrant requirement. Recognizing that there may be other reasons that a search warrant would be impossible or unreasonable to obtain, the Court decided that whether or not a particular DUI arrest and blood test constitutes an exigent circumstance must be decided on a case-by-case basis by assessing the totality of the circumstances.
Chief Justice Roberts, dissatisfied with the vagueness of the majority’s opinion, filed a decision concurring in part and dissenting in part. In short, Chief Justice Roberts opined that an officer should obtain a warrant if time permits it; if not, then a blood test without a warrant is constitutional. Dissenting, Justice Thomas opined that the seriousness of DUI cases always constitute an exigent circumstance.
So, what does this mean for Pennsylvania? Two situations could be affected. As mentioned previously, Pennsylvania has an implied consent law. Under the implied consent law, a person who refuses to submit to a blood test after being arrested for suspicion of DUI will lose his driver’s license for a year is charged with a Tier 3 DUI. Such a lawcould be ruled unconstitutional in the future. Another possibility relates to “consciousness of guilt”. Pennsylvania juries are instructed that if a person refuses a blood test it might be evidence that he has a guilty conscience. This practice could be held to be unconstitutional.