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High court says it will hear drunk driving case

Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether police must get a search warrant before forcing a drunken driving suspect to have blood drawn.

The justices said they will hear Missouri's contention that the Constitution doesn't require police to take the time to get judicial approval, given how quickly alcohol dissipates in the bloodstream. The Missouri Supreme Court disagreed, saying officers typically must seek a warrant.

That decision "actually requires police officers to stand by and allow the best, most probative evidence to be destroyed during a drunk-driving investigation," Missouri argued in its appeal. Lower courts are divided on the question.

The case may have widespread day-to-day implications. More than 1.4 million people are arrested each year in the United States for driving under the influence, according to FBI statistics.

At least 27 states wouldn't be directly affected because they have laws barring nonconsensual blood drawings in the absence of a warrant, according to court papers filed by Tyler G. McNeely, the defendant in the case.

In New York, the first refusal to take such a test results in a license suspension of a year.

McNeely was pulled over for speeding in 2010 and, after failing field sobriety tests, refused to take a breath test. The officer took him to a nearby medical laboratory, where a technician drew blood despite McNeely's objection.

His lawyers say the Supreme Court shouldn't categorically exempt drunken driving cases from the normal rule that police must get a warrant for intrusive bodily searches.

"While every drunk-driving investigation will involve the eventual dissipation of a suspect's blood alcohol content, not every case will involve a risk of losing evidence of intoxication before search," argued McNeely, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

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