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Exigent circumstances: emergency situations or conditions which the law recognizes as excusing compliance with some procedural requirement, or recognition of another’s property or other interests. -Black’s Law Dictionary

In April of 2013, the United States Supreme Court settled the question of whether the natural dissipation of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream establishes, on its own, an exigency exception to the warrant requirement for a nonconsensual blood test in drunk-driving investigations. The Court held that the natural dissipation of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream does not present a per se exigency that would justify a nonconsensual blood test in drunk driving cases.1

The Utah and United States Constitutions state, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue but upon probable cause supported by oath or affirmation, particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or thing to be seized.”2 This means, unless there is an exception to the warrant requirement, a police officer is required to obtain a warrant to conduct a blood test on a person suspected of drunk driving.

Valid exceptions to the warrant requirement are: exigent circumstances; safety of the police officer or others; hot pursuit; search incident to arrest; emergency aid; and consent. Historically, other than consent, exigent circumstances has been the most used exception to justify a police officer’s warrantless blood test on a person suspected of drunk driving.

Situations that justify the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement are: there is a good chance evidence is being or will likely be destroyed or concealed; it is likely that the suspect will flee; and there is a real danger to the police officer or public. Because alcohol naturally dissipates in a person’s bloodstream police and prosecutors have argued that this creates an exigent circumstance that justifies a warrantless blood draw. (i.e., The person suspected of a drunk driving is destroying the evidence of their intoxication. Wherefore, the police officer should not need a warrant to conduct a blood test.)

In Missouri v. McNeely, the accused was stopped by a police officer for speeding and crossing the centerline. After being arrested for drunk driving the accused refused to give a breath sample. The police, without attempting to secure a warrant, directed a lab technician to take a blood sample. Prior to trial, the accused asked the court to suppress the blood test results because the police officer did not secure a search warrant for his blood.

The prosecution argued that exigent circumstances exists when a police officer has probable cause to believe a person has been driving under the influence of alcohol because blood alcohol content evidence is inherently evanescent. In short, the prosecution sought a ruling that there should be a per se exigency, justifying a warrantless blood test, in all cases in which a police officer suspects a person of drunk driving.

The Supreme Court reasoned that despite the fact that a person’s blood alcohol level declines until the alcohol is eliminated, it does not follow that the Court should depart from careful case-by-case assessment of exigency. Here, the prosecutors sought a per se rule, they did not argue that there were exigent circumstances. Wherefore, the exigency exception to the warrant requirement did not apply because, apart from the fact that “as in all cases involving intoxication, defendant’s blood alcohol was being metabolized by his liver,” there were no circumstances suggesting the police officer faced an emergency in which he could not practicably obtain a warrant.

1Missouri vs. McNeely
2Utah Constitution Article I, Section 14, and United States Constitution, Amendment XIV.