Blood Alcohol Tests and Issues of Personal Privacy

Is an involuntary blood draw for the purposes of performing blood alcohol tests a violation of a person's Fourth Amendment right to avoid unreasonable searches and seizures? American citizens, including those who reside in Wisconsin, are guaranteed this protection by the mentioned amendment to the United States Constitution. However, law enforcement offices all across the country often test individuals against their wills for alcohol and other substances when those individuals are suspected of drunk or drugged driving. This post will look at some of the issues behind this debate.

Based on information provided on SCOTUSblog, the premier blog on all things involving the United States Supreme Court, law enforcement officials have used many rationales as to why involuntary blood draws and testing are not violations of the Fourth Amendment. Primarily, they have argued that exigent circumstances demand that immediate testing occur as alcohol quickly dissipates from a person's system after it is consumed. Additionally, the existence of implied consent laws presupposes that all drivers have consented to submitting to such tests when they choose to drive on public roads, thus making their arrest-time avoidance of such tests moot.

As recently as just a few years ago, this debate made its way before the Supreme Court in the matter of Missouri v. McNeely. In the case a driver was arrested on drunk driving charges and the arresting officer did not get a warrant before forcing the driver to submit to blood alcohol tests. In a highly attenuated verdict, the Supreme Court's majority ruled that exigent circumstances do not necessarily justify taking a suspect's blood without a warrant. Ultimately, the Supreme Court found that whether a person may be compelled to submit blood for alcohol testing should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

The Court's ruling offers no hard and fast rules on this contentious debate. In some cases it may be permissible for a law enforcement officer to compel a blood test from a suspected driver, despite the existence of the Fourth Amendment. In others, however, the facts of the situation may require that the officer obtain a warrant before forcing the suspected drunk driver to give blood for analysis.