The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a landmark Fourth Amendment case that could clear up almost 50 years of uncertainty over the constitutionality of blood tests that are taken without a suspect's consent.
The case involves a traffic stop in Missouri, but its ramifications could range far wider, potentially rewriting drunk-driving laws in all 50 states.
"It comes down, basically, to are you going to see blood draws every single time someone gets pulled over for a DUI," said Michael A. Correll, a litigator with the international law firm Alston & Bird, who examined the legality of blood draws in the West Virginia Law Review last year.
Because drunk-driving stops are such an everyday occurrence, "it's going to affect a broad area of society," he told NBC News, adding: "This may be the most widespread Fourth Amendment situation that you and I are going to face" for the foreseeable future.
Writing last month in the journal of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, Lauren Owens, a research attorney for the organization, said, "The outcome of the case could lead to a dramatic increase in the number of DWI cases supported by blood evidence."
The case began in October 2010, when Tyler McNeely of Cape Girardeau, Mo., about 100 miles south of St. Louis, was pulled over for speeding. According to court documents, McNeely was unsteady and failed field sobriety tests, so state Highway Patrol Cpl. Mark Winder asked him to take a breath test.
When McNeely refused, Winder took him to a hospital, where McNeely refused to take a blood test. Winder told the lab technician to take a sample anyway. The record shows that at no time did Winder seek a warrant compelling the test, which indicated that McNeely's blood-alcohol level was almost double the legal limit.
But McNeely's lawyers persuaded the trial judge to exclude the evidence as a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
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