In 2013, the Supreme Court heard a case about blood alcohol content testing called Missouri v. McNeely. The case surrounded warrantless blood tests taken from defendants who were suspected of driving while impaired by alcohol. Police had forced a defendant to take a blood test with no warrant, arguing exigent circumstances.
The warrantless test needed to be taken, according to police, in order to preserve evidence in the blood (the high blood alcohol content) which was being destroyed as the body metabolized the alcohol. Fortunately, the Supreme Court held the body's natural metabolism of alcohol was not an exigent circumstances that justified forcing defendants to submit to a blood test without a warrant and without their consent.
McNeely should have protected defendants nationwide from being forced to take blood tests without their consent unless police obtained a warrant. Unfortunately, in practice, this is not always what has occurred. This is because 13 states have made it a crime to refuse to take a blood test. This leads to defendants being told they either had to consent to a blood test or could be prosecuted for a criminal offense and sent to jail. As these laws resulted in coerced consent, and concerns began to rise about more states criminalizing blood test refusals, defendants have pushed back.
Now, Scotus Blog reports the Supreme Court has granted cert and will hear cases on whether it is a constitutional violation to criminalize refusal to submit to a warrantless blood test. The decision made by the Supreme Court could affect defendants not just in states with current criminal laws, but also defendants nationwide whose states could pass such laws in the future. Depending on how the court rules, prosecutors and police could have significantly more rights to force OWI defendants to undergo blood tests to obtain evidence of intoxication.
Supreme Court to Consider Criminalizing Refusal to Take a Blood Test In Impaired Driving Cases
The two leading cases addressing the issue of criminalizing a refusal to take a blood test are Bernard v. Minnesota and Birchfield v. North Dakota. In North Dakota, refusal to submit to a chemical test of blood, breath, or urine is a crime carrying the same punishment as impaired driving. In Minnesota, it is a crime to refuse to take a blood test if you have been validly arrested for driving under the influence.
The problem is, criminal laws for blood test refusals essentially coerce consent and undermine the protections given to OWI defendants in McNeely. State courts have ruled on cases addressing this issue in recent months, with the Hawaii Supreme Court ruling to protect the rights of defendants accused of driving under the influence.
In the Hawaii case, a driver gave consent to a blood test and was subsequently convicted of the crime of driving drunk because he had a BAC of .17. However, he gave consent only after police told him he could be sent to jail for 30 days because it was a crime to refuse the test. This was coerced consent and the Hawaii Supreme Court said it was invalid consent because the driver had a right to refuse warrantless searches.
Hopefully, the U.S. Supreme Court will view the cases as the Hawaii Supreme Court did and will rule to protect defendants suspected of OWI and other impaired driving offenses nationwide from being faced with criminal charges unless they agree to get their blood drawn.