Missouri v. McNeely
569 U.S. ___ (2013)

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Justia Opinion Summary
McNeely, stopped for speeding and crossing the centerline, declined to take a breath test to measure his blood alcohol concentration (BAC). He was arrested and taken to a hospital. The officer never attempted to secure a search warrant. McNeely refused to consent, but the officer directed a lab technician to take a sample. McNeely’s BAC tested above the legal limit, and he was charged with driving while intoxicated. The trial court suppressed the test result, concluding that the exigency exception to the warrant requirement did not apply because, apart from the fact that McNeely’s blood alcohol was dissipating, no circumstances suggested that the officer faced an emergency. The Missouri Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court affirmed. The Court looked to the “totality of circumstances,” declining to announce a per se rule. When officers in drunk-driving investigations can reasonably obtain a warrant before having a blood sample drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so. Circumstances may make obtaining a warrant impractical such that dissipation will support an exigency, but that is a reason to decide each case on its facts. Blood testing is different in critical respects from other destruction-of-evidence cases; BAC evidence naturally dissipates in a gradual and relatively predictable manner. Because an officer must typically obtain a trained medical professional’s assistance before having a blood test conducted, some delay between the time of the arrest and time of the test is inevitable regardless of whether a warrant is obtained.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

MISSOURI v. McNEELY

certiorari to the supreme court of missouri

No. 11–1425. Argued January 9, 2013—Decided April 17, 2013

Respondent McNeely was stopped by a Missouri police officer for speeding and crossing the centerline. After declining to take a breath test to measure his blood alcohol concentration (BAC), he was arrested and taken to a nearby hospital for blood testing. The officer never attempted to secure a search warrant. McNeely refused to consent to the blood test, but the officer directed a lab technician to take a sample. McNeely’s BAC tested well above the legal limit, and he was charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI). He moved to suppress the blood test result, arguing that taking his blood without a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The trial court agreed, concluding that the exigency exception to the warrant requirement did not apply because, apart from the fact that McNeely’s blood alcohol was dissipating, no circumstances suggested that the officer faced an emergency. The State Supreme Court affirmed, relying on Schmerber v. California, 384 U. S. 757 , in which this Court upheld a DWI suspect’s warrantless blood test where the officer “might reasonably have believed that he was confronted with an emergency, in which the delay necessary to obtain a warrant, under the circumstances, threatened ‘the destruction of evidence,’ ” id., at 770. This case, the state court found, involved a routine DWI investigation where no factors other than the natural dissipation of blood alcohol suggested that there was an emergency, and, thus, the nonconsensual warrantless test violated McNeely’s right to be free from unreasonable searches of his person.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

358 S. W. 3d 65, affirmed.

     Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II–A, II–B, and IV, concluding that in drunk-driving investigations, the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream does not constitute an exigency in every case sufficient to justify conducting a blood test without a warrant. Pp. 4–13, 20–23.

     (a) The principle that a warrantless search of the person is reasonable only if it falls within a recognized exception, see, e.g., United States v. Robinson, 414 U. S. 218 , applies here, where the search involved a compelled physical intrusion beneath McNeely’s skin and into his veins to obtain a blood sample to use as evidence in a criminal investigation. One recognized exception “applies when ‘ “the exigencies of the situation” make the needs of law enforcement so compelling that [a] warrantless search is objectively reasonable.’ ” Kentucky v. King, 563 U. S. ___, ___. This Court looks to the totality of circumstances in determining whether an exigency exits. See Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U. S. 398 . Applying this approach in Schmerber, the Court found a warrantless blood test reasonable after considering all of the facts and circumstances of that case and carefully basing its holding on those specific facts, including that alcohol levels decline after drinking stops and that testing was delayed while officers transported the injured suspect to the hospital and investigated the accident scene. Pp. 4–8.

     (b) The State nonetheless seeks a per se rule, contending that exigent circumstances necessarily exist when an officer has probable cause to believe a person has been driving under the influence of alcohol because BAC evidence is inherently evanescent. Though a person’s blood alcohol level declines until the alcohol is eliminated, it does not follow that the Court should depart from careful case-by-case assessment of exigency. When officers in drunk-driving investigations can reasonably obtain a warrant before having a blood sample drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so. See McDonald v. United States, 335 U. S. 451 . Circumstances may make obtaining a warrant impractical such that the alcohol’s dissipation will support an exigency, but that is a reason to decide each case on its facts, as in Schmerber, not to accept the “considerable overgeneralization” that a per se rule would reflect, Richards v. Wisconsin, 520 U. S. 385 . Blood testing is different in critical respects from other destruction-of-evidence cases. Unlike a situation where, e.g., a suspect has control over easily disposable evidence, see Cupp v. Murphy, 412 U. S. 291 , BAC evidence naturally dissipates in a gradual and relatively predictable manner. Moreover, because an officer must typically take a DWI suspect to a medical facility and obtain a trained medical professional’s assistance before having a blood test conducted, some delay between the time of the arrest or accident and time of the test is inevitable regardless of whether a warrant is obtained. The State’s rule also fails to account for advances in the 47 years since Schmerber was decided that allow for the more expeditious processing of warrant applications, particularly in contexts like drunk-driving investigations where the evidence supporting probable cause is simple. The natural dissipation of alcohol in the blood may support an exigency finding in a specific case, as it did in Schmerber, but it does not do so categorically. Pp. 8–13.

     (c) Because the State sought a per se rule here, it did not argue that there were exigent circumstances in this particular case. The arguments and the record thus do not provide the Court with an adequate framework for a detailed discussion of all the relevant factors that can be taken into account in determining the reasonableness of acting without a warrant. It suffices to say that the metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream and the ensuing loss of evidence are among the factors that must be considered in deciding whether a warrant is required. Pp. 20–23.

     Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Scalia, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Kagan, concluded in Part III that other arguments advanced by the State and amici in support of a per se rule are unpersuasive. Their concern that a case-by-case approach to exigency will not provide adequate guidance to law enforcement officers may make the desire for a bright-line rule understandable, but the Fourth Amendment will not tolerate adoption of an overly broad categorical approach in this context. A fact-intensive, totality of the circumstances, approach is hardly unique within this Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. See, e.g., Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U. S. 119 –125. They also contend that the privacy interest implicated here is minimal. But motorists’ diminished expectation of privacy does not diminish their privacy interest in preventing a government agent from piercing their skin. And though a blood test conducted in a medical setting by trained personnel is less intrusive than 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. Finally, the government’s general interest in combating drunk driving does not justify departing from the warrant requirement without showing exigent circumstances that make securing a warrant impractical in a particular case. Pp. 15–20.

     Sotomayor, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II–A, II–B, and IV, in which Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, and Kagan, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts II–C and III, in which Scalia, Ginsburg, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed an opinion concurring in part. Roberts, C. J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Breyer and Alito, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

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