Tuesday, January 17, 2012

State v. McNeely[1]

Opinion handed down January 17, 2012

Defendant McNeely was arrested for driving under the influence, and blood was drawn without consent or a warrant.  The trial court sustained the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence and the state filed an interlocutory appeal to the Supreme Court of Missouri.  On appeal, the state argued that the dissipating nature of alcohol in the bloodstream creates an exigent circumstance that evidence will be destroyed, and therefore a warrant is not required.  The court disagreed, holding that an exigent circumstance exists only if certain other “special facts” are also present that create an emergency situation that would delay the patrolman’s ability to procure a warrant, resulting in the destruction of evidence.

I.  Facts and Holding

During a routine traffic stop, Defendant displayed tell-tale signs of intoxication and was subsequently arrested for driving while intoxicated.[2]  After refusing to submit to a breath test, the defendant was taken to a local hospital so that a blood sample could be taken as proof of intoxication.[3]  The patrolman failed to procure a warrant, and a blood sample was taken, despite the defendant’s refusal to submit to the procedure.[4]  The blood sample was analyzed, revealing that the defendant’s blood alcohol level was well above the legal limit.[5]  The trial court sustained the Defendant’s motion to have the results of the blood test suppressed on the grounds that the sample was taken in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.[6] 

On interlocutory appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri was asked to determine under what “special facts” is a nonconsensual and warrantless blood draw in a DWI case a reasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.[7]  The court identified that answering this question required the balancing of two competing interests: namely, “society’s interest in preventing the harms caused by drunken driving and an individual’s Fourth Amendment right to be secure in his or her person and to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.”[8]  The court recognized that the United States Supreme Court addressed this issue in Schmerber v. California, which provided a limited exception to the warrant requirement in alcohol-related cases if “special facts” exist that “might have caused the officer to reasonably believe he was faced with an emergency situation in which the delay in obtaining a warrant would threaten the destruction of evidence.”[9] 

The state argued that this gives officers the broad authority to direct medical professionals to conduct nonconsensual and warrantless blood draws on DWI defendants on the mere probable cause of intoxication, on the grounds that the dissipating nature of blood-alcohol evidence alone constitutes a sufficient exigency to forego the warrant requirement.[10]  The court did not agree with the state’s interpretation of Schmerber, noting that the United States Supreme Court in Schmerber rejected the notion that the dissipating nature of alcohol in the blood stream creates a per se exigency and expressly warned against expansive interpretations beyond the limited facts of the case.[11]  Instead, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that more than the mere fact that alcohol naturally dissipates in the blood stream is required to provide an exigency to conduct a warrantless bodily intrusion, and that “special facts,” such as the time delay caused by investigating the scene of an accident and transporting the defendant to the hospital, must also be present.[12] 

In the instant case, the court found that no “special facts,” such as an accident or injuries, existed that would delay the patrolman’s ability to obtain a warrant for a blood test.[13] As a result, the court found that the blood draw constituted an illegal search and seizure of the defendant in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and upheld the decision of the trial court to suppress the results.[14]

II.  Legal Background

In Katz v. United States, the United States Supreme Court held that “searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment—subject to only a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.”[15] One of these well-delineated exceptions is when exigent circumstances are present.[16]  Exigent circumstances are present if the time needed to obtain a warrant would allow a suspect to escape, risk the destruction of evidence, or endanger life.[17]

In Schmerber, the defendant and his passenger were injured and required hospital treatment after the defendant drove his car off the road.[18]  After his arrest at the hospital, a blood sample revealing the defendant’s intoxication was taken from him without his consent or a warrant, at the direction of police.[19]  At trial, the defendant objected to the admission of the blood analysis into evidence on the grounds that the warrantless blood draw violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.[20]  The United States Supreme Court held that drawing an individual’s blood for evidentiary reasons is a search that implicates the Fourth Amendment and would ordinarily require a search warrant when a person does not consent.[21]  However, under the circumstances, the Court carved out a limited exception to the warrant requirement for a blood draw in alcohol-related cases when “special facts” were present that might have caused the officer to reasonably believe he was faced with an emergency situation in which the delay in obtaining a warrant would threaten the destruction of evidence.[22] The evidence in this case was the percentage of alcohol in the defendant’s blood, which begins to diminish shortly after drinking stops.[23] Collecting this evidence was threatened by the time required to transport the defendant to the hospital and investigate the scene of the accident.[24]  Since Schmerber, courts have read this exception as an application of the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.[25]

III.  Comment

The decision reached by the Supreme Court of Missouri was both prudent and in keeping with traditional judicial treatment of the Fourth Amendment.  Historically, the United States Supreme Court has adopted a cautious approach toward permitting exceptions to constitutionally-guaranteed protections.  Exceptions must be able to accommodate the realities of police work, but must also be narrowly tailored so as not to abrogate the associated constitutional right.  Therefore, an expansive interpretation of Schmerber presents a high risk of being overturned by the United States Supreme Court.  Considering both the administrative and judicial complications that could result from having to address cases already decided under an expansive interpretation, the Supreme Court of Missouri’s decision to favor a narrow rather than broad interpretation seems especially appropriate.

-Andrew C. Hooper

[1] No. SC 91850 (Mo. January 17, 2012) (en banc), available at http://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=51958.  The West Reporter citation is State v. McNeely, 358 S.W.3d 65 (Mo. 2012) (en banc).
[2] Id. at 3.
[3] Id. at 3-4.
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id. at 5.
[8] Id. at 6.
[9] Id. at 6-8.
[10] Id. at 7-8.
[11] Id. at 8, 15.
[12] Id. at 16.
[13] Id. at 16-17.
[14] Id. at 17.
[15] Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967).
[16] United States v. Cisneros-Gutirrez, 598 F.3d 997, 1004 (8th Cir. 2010).
[17] Id.
[18] Schmerber v. California, 384 U.S. 757, 758 (1966).
[19] Id. at 758-59.
[20] Id. at 759.
[21] Id. at 769-70.
[22] Id. at 770-72.
[23] Id. at 770-71.
[24] Id.
[25] Winston v. Lee, 470 U.S. 753, 759 (1985); Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 750 (1984); United States v. Berry, 866 F.2d 887, 891 (6th Cir. 1989); Marshall v. Columbia Lea Reg'l Hosp., 474 F.3d 733, 740 (10th Cir. 2007); United States v. Morgan, 33 F. App'x 603, 605 (3d Cir. 2002).