Jan. 9, 2013
United States Supreme Court today heard arguments in the most significant DWI case to reach the high court in almost fifty years
The United States Supreme Court today heard arguments in the most significant DWI case to reach the high court in almost fifty years. The case, Missouri vs. McNeeley, involves the thorny legal issue of whether or not police officers conducting DWI stops need a search warrant to get a non-consensual blood draw. If the court decides in favor of Missouri, DWI enforcement around the nation may become significantly more efficient and effective. If the court rules against Missouri, the ruling could have a significant effect on DWI enforcement strategies in numerous states and will have far reaching implications for DWI enforcement all across the nation.
Both sides relied on a 1966 case out of the high court, Schmerber vs. California, where the court ruled that a CHP trooper did not need to get a search warrant in his DWI case and the non-consensual blood draw was a reasonable exception to the 4th Amendment's requirement of a warrant before a search and seizure can be undertaken by law enforcement. The court in that case found that because blood is evidence of DWI that is being destroyed by a person's liver, time is of the essence and a warrant is not necessary. However, the court also mentioned the fact that in Schmerber's case, there was a crash and Schmerber suffered an injury.
The prosecutor arguing on behalf of the State of Missouri argued that the Supreme Court has already addressed this issue in Schmerber and that warrants were not necessary. The defense lawyer arguing for McNeeley argued that Schmerber was limited to its facts and that the court should find that there were no special circumstances (like a crash and an injury) in McNeeley's case. In essence, the defense argued that the blood result should be suppressed because McNeeley's case was a "straight forward DWI with no special facts.
Montgomery County prosecutor, Warren Diepraam, was asked to attend the hearing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Diepraam states that although the justices had difficult questions for both lawyers, most of the justices seemed exasperated at the time that would be lost if Schmerber was limited to DWI cases with special aggravating circumstances. Based on these questions and the obvious concerns by a majority of the justices, Diepraam predicts that the Supreme Court will use the McNeeley case to allow warrantless seizures of blood in DWI cases as long as the sample is taken in a medical facility by trained personnel. Diepraam notes that only Sotomayor and Kagan had significant issues with the prosecution position so he predicts that it will be a 5-4 decision expected sometime by June.
As for the effect on Texas, Diepraam notes that Texas already uses warrants in most DWI cases courtesy of the No Refusal program he created or because there are aggravating circumstances in DWI cases where warrants are not used such as fatalities, crashes with injuries, or habitual drunk drivers. Therefore, Diepraam predicts that the effect in Texas will be minimal at this time. The court's ruling will only open up new areas of debate in Texas. If the court upholds the State of Missouri's position and allows warrantless seizures of blood in all DWI cases, Texas will not be affected because our statutory law already bans the practice of warrantless blood draws absent special circumstances. The debate will shift to the legislature to adopt Missouri's statute on behalf of police officers. If the court rules against Missouri, Diepraam predicts that things will generally stay the same here, but defense lawyers will then start to challenge warrantless blood draws in Texas under current law by claiming that an injury or a death is not a sufficient cause opening a floodgate of legal challenges.
McNeeley was stopped by a Missouri trooper for speeding and weaving. The trooper noted signs of impairment and asked McNeeley to perform field sobriety tests. McNeeley failed those tests and was arrested but refused a voluntary breath sample. The trooper took him to a local hospital and ordered medical staff to take a non-consensual blood draw. The trooper had been told this was acceptable because the legislature had recently changed their law to delete the following wording from their implied consent law: .if a person refuses a blood sample, none shall be taken. Texas law still retains this wording with exceptions for deaths, injuries, and felons.
The enforcement effort is partly funded by the Texas Department of Transportation's No Refusal grant which allows prosecutors and nurses to work with police during these efforts. The effort will continue this weekend with increased DWI patrols, the Breath Alcohol Testing Mobile Facility from the Sheriff's Office, and No Refusal prosecutors drafting warrants for people arrested for DWI who refuse to follow the law and provide a scientific sample. The No Refusal Program is a cooperative effort between law enforcement and others in criminal law whereby prosecutors prepare search warrants for DWI suspects arrested by police and present the warrants to judges for review. If the judge signs the warrant, a mandatory blood sample is taken by a nurse also hired through TXDOT funds. The Montgomery County program is unique in the nation because the nurse is taken via a police vehicle to the scene where blood is taken voluntarily or through a warrant. This provides better evidence for judges and juries because the sample more accurately reflects the alcohol amount in the blood at the time of driving. Either the MCSO BAT van or the MCDA DART van is used for these purposes. The DART van is a modified ambulance used to support No Refusal and other enforcement efforts.