Drunken ruling leads nowhere

In 2011 there were 158 deaths in Arkansas directly attributable to driving while intoxicated. That figure represents more than a quarter of all motor vehicle deaths in the state. As such, it is vitally important that police officers have all the necessary resources to effectively enforce Arkansas’ laws related to driving while under the influence.

We are very fortunate that the vast majority of our police officers dutifully tend every possible detail and legal stricture when dealing with an individual they suspect may be driving while drunk. For the uninitiated, there is a well-established to-do list that all officers must follow in this circumstance. Any variance from that delineation stands to undermine the case — and public safety. Officers know this and tailor their actions accordingly.

Just this week, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case, Missouri vs. McNeely. The central question posed by this case is whether a police officer may obtain a nonconsensual and warrantless blood sample from a suspected drunk driver under the exigent circumstances exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement based upon the natural dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream. In short, is there an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement for forcibly drawing blood from a person suspected of drunk driving?

The facts of the case are not in dispute. A Missouri state trooper stopped the defendant, Tyler McNeely, on suspicion of driving drunk. The trooper administered field sobriety tests — which McNeely failed. The trooper asked the driver to submit to an alcohol breath test. McNeely refused.

The trooper then transported McNeely to a medical clinic. After the driver refused to submit voluntarily to a blood test, the trooper directed a clinic staff member to draw blood without McNeely’s permission.

The test showed McNeely’s blood-alcohol level was well above the legal limit. He was charged with driving while intoxicated. McNeely appealed his conviction — which was based in part on the blood evidence — citing his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

This week the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case. The content of said ruling is — by admission of the justices themselves — not very instructive for law enforcement.

The court concluded that the officer should have first obtained a warrant for the blood draw.

“We hold 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,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

The key phrase here is “does not constitute an exigency in every case.” Which leaves law enforcement with the all-important question: In which cases might it constitute an exigency? In other words, when do they need to get a warrant?

While concurring with the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts lamented the lack of specificity: “A police officer reading this court’s opinion would have no idea, no idea, what the Fourth Amendment requires of him, once he decides to obtain a blood sample from a drunk driving suspect who has refused a breathalyzer test.”

In matters of Constitutional procedure, cops like to have a bright line rule. They understand just how serious it is to violate someone’s constitutional rights. As a general construct, they will faithfully follow whatever guidance they are given. Unfortunately, as the Chief Justice correctly states, this ruling is almost wholly non-instructive. Not only does it give the police no clear path, it doesn’t tell the rest of us what we should expect, either.

Of course all of this could be put aside if one small thing would happen — if people would just stop drinking and driving. Until then, we have some muddy waters to navigate.