Constitutional Protections Curbing Police Power in Obtaining Evidence in DUI Investigations

What is the scope of police authority when obtaining evidence from a driver to show that he or she may be intoxicated?

When obtaining evidence from a driver, such as a blood sample, police officers must comply with the Fourth Amendment, which ensures “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their person … against unreasonable searches and seizures”.  U.S.C.A Const. Amend. IV.  Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that “searches conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by a judge or a magistrate are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment”.  Katz v. U.S., 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967).  Accordingly, within the context of a DUI investigation, unless a police officer has obtained a warrant to draw a blood sample, a court would likely hold that a person’s Fourth Amendment right has been violated.

Perhaps you know someone who had their blood drawn during a DUI investigation, without the use of a search warrant, and was subsequently convicted by use of the blood sample to show that the person was operating a vehicle while being intoxicated.  Based on the Fourth Amendment and numerous U.S. Supreme Court decisions one might jump to the conclusion that someone’s constitutional protection has been violated.

However, a common theme within the realm of criminal procedure, the area of law which the Fourth Amendment commonly falls under, is that there is an exception to almost all traditional rules.  “An exception to the general rule requiring a search warrant is when exigent circumstances are present … [such as] if the time needed to obtain the warrant would endanger life, allow a suspect to escape, or risk the destruction of evidence”.  United States v. Cisneros–Gutierrez, 598 F.3d 997, 1004 (8th Cir., 2010)

When is a nonconsensual and warrantless blood sample obtained in a DUI investigation a reasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment? (In other words, when may a police officer force an individual suspected of driving under the influence to provide a blood sample, or take a blood sample without asking, and not violate a person’s constitutional rights).

Schmerber v. California, provides a classic example where a blood sample from a person suspected of driving under the influence may be nonconsensually taken without violating someone’s Fourth Amendment protection.  384 U.S. 757, 758 (1966).  In Schmerber, defendant was driving a vehicle that skidded off the road causing the defendant driver and his passenger to sustain injuries. Id. at 758.  While defendant was being treated for his injuries at the hospital, he was arrested and without a warrant or defendant’s consent, a blood sample was drawn revealing that defendant was intoxicated at the time of the automobile accident.  Id. at 759 semenax user.  Defendant objected to the state trial court’s use of the blood sample as evidence for the DUI conviction based on his Fourth Amendment protection being violated.  Id. at 759.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in reviewing the state court’s method of obtaining the blood sample used in Schmerber’s DUI conviction, established a limited exception where blood may be drawn without consent from an individual or by use of a warrant.  The exception is based on an emergency situation where a police officer reasonably believes the delay in obtaining a warrant to draw blood from a non-consenting person would threaten the destruction of evidence, in this case blood alcohol content.  Id. at 770-71.  Due to the fact that the percentage of alcohol in a person’s blood begins to diminish shortly after drinking, added with the time to transport a person from the accident scene to the hospital and time to investigate the accident scene, a blood sample taken well after a warrant has been obtained will not appropriately reflect the alcohol in the defendant at the time of the accident.  Id. at 770-71.  Under this fact scenario the U.S. Supreme Court held a nonconsensual, warrantless blood draw was permissible under the Fourth Amendment.  Id. at 772.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Schmerber has essentially broaden police authority in conducting investigations, a police officer must still administer an investigation within the contours of the exception to the general rule requiring a warrant prior to searching a person.  It is important to note that the exception to the general rule set forth in Schermber does not rest on merely preserving evidence, the exception to the warrant requirement is based on the emergency situation (stated in the case as “special facts”) coupled with the risk of destruction of evidence.  Contrary to the opinions of some legal scholars and practitioners that the protections set forth in the Fourth Amendment are being eroded over the time due to decisions such as Schermber, the statutory language in the Fourth Amendment still does its job in restraining police authority to its appropriate boundaries.



This blog was written by Hector Leija Legal Intern and is meant for informational purposes only.  This blog and its contents are not intended as legal advice and are only informational. Seneca Law Group is a law firm located in San Diego, California and any information in this blog is related only to California law. None of the information in this blog should be relied upon in court proceedings without consulting an attorney. Each case is different and the law is always changing.  If you have a legal problem please feel free to contact us today!

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