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U.S. Opinions: Los Angeles

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A warrant to draw blood?

Missouri wants Supreme Court to waive critical legal step

From a Jan. 11 editorial in the Los Angeles Times:

The Supreme Court was asked last week to rule that police never need to obtain a search warrant before drawing blood from a motorist stopped for drunk driving. The court should reject that claim.

In 2010, Tyler G. McNeely was stopped by a Missouri highway patrolman for speeding. After McNeely refused to undergo a breath test, the patrolman drove him to a hospital and, over McNeely’s objections, directed a phlebotomist to take a sample of McNeely’s blood.

The results indicated a blood alcohol level well above the legal limit, but a trial judge and the Missouri Supreme Court held that the evidence was inadmissible because it had been obtained without a warrant.

The state of Missouri, supported by the Obama administration, urged the court to rule that the drawing of blood without a warrant is always constitutional because evidence of alcohol in the blood dissipates as the minutes pass, which means there’s no time to wait for a warrant.

Fortunately, both liberal and conservative justices seemed reluctant to grant police a general dispensation from the warrant requirement for a practice as physically intrusive as drawing blood.

“So how can it be reasonable to forgo the 4th Amendment in a procedure as intrusive as a needle going into someone’s body?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked during oral arguments.

As for the suggestion that obtaining a warrant might take so long that traces of alcohol would dissipate, McNeely’s lawyer noted that many jurisdictions allow police to obtain warrants by telephone or electronically.

Knowing that he must obtain a warrant, an officer might take greater pains to ensure that a motorist’s behavior isn’t caused by a reaction to medication rather than intoxication.

The Supreme Court has no cause to do away with that additional protection.

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