By Sarah Hogsed
Register News Writer
A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on warrantless blood tests touched on Fourth Amendment issues brought up in a Madison County drunken driving case last year.
In the Missouri case taken up by the Supreme Court, a man stopped on suspicion of drunken driving refused Breathalyzer and blood tests. The police officer took him to a local medical facility and directed the staff to draw the man’s blood. The officer did not obtain a search warrant for the procedure.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, upheld a lower court’s ruling to throw out the blood test as evidence. The state of Missouri argued that any wait to obtain a warrant for a blood test in DUI cases would allow more time for the alcohol to dissipate from a suspect’s bloodstream, essentially causing a loss of evidence.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the majority, pointed out that “some delay between the time of arrest or accident and time of the test is inevitable regardless of whether a warrant is obtained.”
She added that today’s technology allows officers to obtain warrants from judges in a matter of minutes using tools such as email and text messaging, especially in DUI cases in which the evidence supporting probable cause is usually simple.
The court agreed there may be cases in which exigent circumstances will allow a warrantless blood draw, however, each case must be judged individually as to whether that is needed.
Ultimately, the court ruled that placing a needle into someone’s skin is an invasive search as defined by the U.S. Constitution.
“... Motorists’ diminished expectation of privacy does not diminish their privacy interest in preventing a government agent from piercing their skin,” Sotomayor wrote. “And though a blood test conducted in a medical setting by trained personnel is less intrusive that other bodily invasions, this Court has never retreated from its recognition that any compelled intrusion into the human body implicates significant, constitutionally protected privacy interests.”
Madison County drunken driving case
Prior to the Supreme Court adopting the position that blood tests are a type of intrusive search in DUI cases, Madison District Court Judge Earl-Ray Neal had been using the same reasoning when he ruled on evidence in impaired driving cases.
In early 2012, Neal presided over a case in which a man suspected of drunken driving was given an enhanced, or aggravated, DUI charge because he refused a blood test.
He was not given a Breathalyzer test first because the arresting Richmond Police Department officer believed the machine at the Madison County Detention Center was not operating properly. The officer did not have blood forcibly drawn from the man.
The defendant’s attorney asked to court to drop the stepped up charge because the defendant should not have been required to submit to a blood test before a Breathalyzer test.
Neal had thrown out evidence in a similar 2008 case based on his interpretation of the state’s implied consent law for motorists. Neal asserted in cases of alcohol intoxication, the less invasive test – a Breathalyzer – should always be performed before a blood test.
“The United States Supreme Court has determined that (the) Fourth Amendment prohibits compelled intrusions into (the) body for blood to be analyzed for alcohol content if intrusions are not justified in the circumstances ...” Neal said in a judicial order from the 2008 case.
Assistant County Attorney Jud Patterson halted prosecution in the 2012 case and asked Madison Circuit Court to weigh in on the issue.
“The Commonwealth is unable to proceed in DUI prosecutions where it is unsure or unclear about what law applies to when and how an officer must administer tests of a person's breath, blood or urine,” Patterson wrote.
Madison Circuit Judge Jean C. Logue ruled that the state’s implied consent law does not state that one test – blood, breath or urine – must be performed before the other. She issued a writ of prohibition, a judicial order that prohibits Neal “from ruling that a police officer must first attempt a breath test in cases where there’s no evidence of intoxication other than alcohol,” Patterson wrote in the motion for the writ.
Changes in technology affects the law
The writ of prohibition still stands, and Neal declined to comment on specifics surrounding Logue’s ruling or the 2012 drunken driving case, which was resolved in a different division of Madison District Court.
However, Neal said he agrees with the Supreme Court’s position that technology now allows judges and law enforcement to move quickly to obtain warrants while also safeguarding citizens’ constitutional rights.
“Technology has completely changed the practice of law,” Neal said.
Neal said the 25th Judicial Circuit, which covers Madison and Clark counties, has a team of judges who are available to law enforcement officials “24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
“It doesn’t take any time these days to get an arrest warrant or search warrant,” Neal said.
Neal said the judges use smartphones, tablets, email and messaging to move quickly on warrants and emergency protective orders for victims of domestic violence.
In the past, once arrest warrants were signed by a judge, it could take nearly three days before they were placed in the computer system. But with the new “e-warrant” system that’s been in use in Madison County for more than a year, it can take as little as 15 minutes to get a signed warrant into the nationwide police database, Neal said.
The state court system also is moving toward an electronic filing system, similar to what already is in use in the federal courts, Neal said.
Sarah Hogsed can be reached at shogsed@