Supreme Court Signals Blood Tests Protected by Fourth Amendment

Justices indicated Wednesday that the dangers of drunken driving don't trump the Fourth Amendment, peppering lawyers for the state of Missouri with objections to their request that the Supreme Court allow law enforcement to order blood tests for DUI without suspects' consent.

The case, Missouri v. McNeely, is seen as a landmark that could clear up almost 50 years of uncertainty over the constitutionality of blood tests that are conducted without a warrant. Legal scholars say it could rewrite drunken-driving laws in all 50 states.

The case hinges on how you interpret a 1966 opinion by then-Chief Justice William Brennan, who wrote that law enforcement should get a warrant before taking a blood draw without a suspect's consent, except in a few very limited circumstances that rise to the level of an emergency.

Missouri wants the court to declare that the dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream is, on its face, an emergency allowing officers to get a blood test immediately and without a warrant.

But justices indicated that they firmly believed that taking someone's blood was an intrusion that in most cases constituted a government "seizure" subject to protection of the Fourth Amendment and requiring the subject's permission or prior approval from a judge.

"How can it be reasonable to forgo the Fourth Amendment in a procedure as intrusive as a needle going into someone's body?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked John Koester, a prosecutor in Jackson, Mo., who represented the state Wednesday.

Sotomayor said that if the court ruled Missouri's way, it would be giving law enforcement free rein to "use the most intrusive way you can to prove your case," which wouldn't always be the most constitutionally sound way.

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