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Supreme Court: Cops Can't Compel DUI Blood Tests Without Warrants

In 2010, a state trooper pulled a driver over in rural southern Missouri. According to the officer's report, the driver had been weaving and a warrant search brought up two prior DUI convictions. The officer also noted that the driver's speech was slurred and he seemed unsteady on his feet. The trooper administered several field sobriety tests and noted that driver failed them. The driver refused to submit to Breathalyzer or blood-alcohol tests.

The man was arrested and, while the officer could have sought a warrant before forcing the driver to submit to a blood-alcohol test, he did not. Instead, the trooper took him directly to a hospital where, handcuffed, he was forced to allow a technician to stick a needle in his arm and draw his blood for later use by the prosecution.

That's the background behind a decision just announced by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that compulsory DUI blood tests must be authorized by a warrant or they violate citizens' constitutional right to be free from unreasonable governmental search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

In Florida misdemeanor DUI cases, state law specifically gives drivers the right to refuse both Breathalyzer and blood tests, except in cases with serious injury or death.

That said, even if the driver isn't actually under the influence of drugs or alcohol, refusing the test will result in a driver's license suspension for at least a year, and the fact that the test was refused can be used against the driver in the criminal case. Only in DUI cases involving serious injury or death does Florida law allow the defendant's blood to be drawn against his or her will.

The prosecution had argued that, since alcohol in blood dissipates over time, it is urgent that law enforcement draw and stabilize it as soon as possible. Requiring them to seek a warrant from a judge will add to the time required, allowing the evidence itself to dissipate. Eight of the nine Justices disagreed. A needle-stick is such an intrusion into the defendant's bodily integrity, they held, that the reduction in blood-alcohol over the course of several hours is not enough to justify that intrusion.

Under the Supreme Court's recent ruling, officers in Florida are now required to obtain warrants before ordering blood draws, even in cases involving serious injury or death.

Source: The Washington Post, "Supreme Court limits warrantless blood tests for drunken driving suspects," Robert Barnes , April 17, 2013