On April 17th, 2013, the United States Supreme Court delivered an opinion, Missouri v. McNeely, which called into question nearly every aspect of Minnesota’s DWI law. Not only does the ruling in McNeely raise doubts about the constitutionality of our DWI law in its entirety, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor explicitly overturned what has become the constitutional basis for Minnesota’s DWI law.
Up until now, the legality of our DWI law has been based on the natural metabolism of blood-alcohol in a suspect’s body causing the forensic evidence of DWI, your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC), to be diminished as time passes. This allowed law enforcement to take samples of your blood, breath or urine without a warrant, as required in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.
Missouri v. McNeely involved a DWI suspect, Tyler McNeely, who was stopped by a Missouri police officer for speeding and crossing the centerline. After declining to take a breath test to measure his BAC, he was arrested and taken to a nearby hospital for blood testing. The officer never attempted to obtain a search warrant, and McNeely refused to consent to the blood test. The officer then directed a lab technician to take a blood sample, which revealed a BAC well above Missouri’s legal limit. McNeely was ultimately charged with DWI, and asked the court to suppress the evidence of the blood test, arguing that there was no consent, and certainly no warrant, as required by the 4th Amendment of the Constitution.
Issues of warrantless blood tests have been argued, and rejected, regularly throughout the country; but in a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966, Schmerber v. California – which has been routinely misinterpreted – most notably by the State of Minnesota – the court ruled that the metabolism and natural dissipation of alcohol levels in the bloodstream created a situation where law enforcement did not need to get a warrant because the evidence was being lost with every minute that passed. The ruling was deliberately limited to the circumstances specific to that case; and with advances in technology such as email, fax, and even video conferencing, the ability for law enforcement to obtain warrants has become infinitely more convenient, a fact that has been overlooked by nearly every state court in the country.
After almost 50 years, the Missouri courts finally decided that enough was enough. The Supreme Court of Missouri ruled that, other than the natural dissipation of blood alcohol, there was no reason that the officer could not get a warrant, and he therefore violated McNeely’s constitutional right against warrantless searches, meaning the evidence of McNeely’s BAC could not be used against him, and that the body’s natural metabolism of alcohol can no longer be used as the sole-factor for a warrantless search.
Sotomayor Defends McNeely’s Rights
The State of Missouri appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor delivered the high court’s ruling, agreeing with the Missouri courts throughout her 15-page opinion, saying specifically that, “In drunk-driving investigations, the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute [a situation] in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant.” Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S.Ct. 1552 (2013).
In discussing the history of the law, Sotomayor pointed to a handful of egregious examples of state law with particularity, Minnesota being near the top of that list, and admonished the reasoning courts have used to justify warrantless blood tests. These warrantless searches for evidence have not only become routine in DWI stops across the country, they’ve become part of the Minnesota DWI law by making refusal to submit to the blood-alcohol tests a crime in and of itself.
The best place to start the discussion is the fundamental Constitutional rights that are implicated, violated routinely, and why they exist in the first place. We’ll then move into the 4th Amendment right to privacy, and more specifically, the requirement that law enforcement obtain a warrant for any search. Next, we will discuss what is known as the Frost Doctrine, or the “unconstitutional conditions doctrine,” meaning that the government cannot condition a privilege – driving, in this case – on the waiver of constitutional right – the warrant requirement for searches and seizures. Then we’ll take you under the hood of the DWI process a little, and discuss the implications of the Due Process Clause in the 5th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution. You’ll also get a glimpse into the crime of Refusal to Submit to Chemical Testing, a gross misdemeanor that you will be charged with, and convicted of, if you don’t “consent” to the chemical testing process. Finally, we’ll wrap up the discussion, for the time being, with some of the more ancillary issues that will be raised, and any new developments in the Court of Appeals, or in the DWI law itself.