In early January, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that involved a disputed blood test stemming from a DUI in Missouri. As the Washington Times reported, “Police stopped a speeding, swerving car and the driver, who had two previous drunken-driving convictions, refused to submit to a breath test to measure the alcohol level in his body.” Law enforcement officers subsequently withdrew blood from the individual without first getting a warrant.
Although the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on gay marriage is taking center stage at the national level, this blood test case has profound legal ramifications for both civil liberties advocates and law enforcement officials alike.
Law enforcement officers argue that alcohol levels are evanescent, and waiting on a warrant can jeopardize properly attaining the blood alcohol level of an individual stopped on suspicion of a DUI. In this particular case, this is the crux of the government’s position; the prosecuting attorney from Missouri states, “Securing blood alcohol evidence with as little delay as possible is incredibly important.”
However, such a hard-line rule, which the Justices appeared to be at odds with, raises logistical issues with state laws, which differ across the country in conjunction with the time it takes for law enforcement to attain a warrant. In addition, 25 states actually prohibit warrantless blood tests, and evidence shows that warrant restrictions have no effect on conviction rates in those states.
Warrantless searches, of any kind and particularly those that involve bodily intrusion, raise two major constitutional concerns that have civil liberties advocates up in arms: First, are Americans really prepared to further water down the already trampled on Fourth Amendment’s protection against unlawful “searches and seizures” clause? Bodily intrusion by a government official stands at odds with the test of “reasonableness” that a law enforcement officer must meet before conducting a warrantless search. As Judge Napolitano points out, “For years, courts took the position that you can’t enter someone’s body without a search warrant.”
The Constitution is a blueprint for what the government may do. The Bill of Rights, on the other hand, spells out what the government may not do. Although the word “privacy” is not explicitly used in the Bill of Rights, it’s implied as the Tenth Amendment Center points out: “There is a right to privacy. Why? Because the government isn’t specifically given the power to violate your privacy.”
A 1952 Supreme Court opinion summarized a warrantless bodily intrusion by a government official as “conduct that shocks the conscience.” This protection, which has long withstood scrutiny in the courts, is now at stake if the Roberts Court rules in favor of the government.
Drunk driving is a serious problem in America, and thousands of individuals tragically lose their lives every year because of the criminal irresponsibility of others. But the Bill of Rights must be upheld if our posterity wishes to resist the tyranny of an overreaching federal (and state) government that borders on a modern day police state. We aren’t there yet, but a Supreme Court finding that law enforcement officers have the legal authority to withdrawal bodily fluids without first going through the legal process of attaining a warrant may be the final nail in the coffin that pushes us beyond the point of return.