WASHINGTON — Police officers generally must try to get a warrant before forcing uncooperative drunken-driving suspects to submit to a blood test, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The natural dissipation of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream does not justify an exception to the general constitutional requirements of a warrant, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority.
She said such emergencies must be determined by the circumstances in a case-by-case examination and rejected the notion that officers face a “now or never” situation in obtaining blood-alcohol tests.
“In those drunk-driving investigations where police officers can reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample can be drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so,” wrote Sotomayor.
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She was joined in her main holding by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with the outcome of the case, which affirmed a Missouri Supreme Court ruling, but criticized the vagueness of the majority’s test.
“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 drunken driving suspect who has refused a breathalyzer test,” wrote Roberts, who was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito Jr.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone justice agreeing with Missouri and the U.S. government that the metabolization of alcohol in the blood created the kind of emergency that does not require a warrant.
The case came from rural Cape Girardeau County, where in the early-morning hours of Oct. 3, 2010, Missouri State Highway Patrol Cpl. Mark Winder pulled over Tyler McNeely. McNeely, whose speech was slurred and who had alcohol on his breath, failed a field sobriety test and twice refused to take a breath test.
Winder arrested him and, on the way to jail, stopped by a hospital. After McNeely refused to submit to a blood test, Winder ordered a phlebotomist to draw blood anyway. Winder did not attempt to obtain a warrant because he said he thought Missouri law did not require it because of recent changes.
The Missouri Supreme Court unanimously disagreed and said the blood test could not be used. Courts nationwide were divided on the issue.
Court curbs suits over foreign abuses
The U.S. Supreme Court insulated multinational corporations from at least some lawsuits over atrocities overseas, scaling back a favorite legal tool of human-rights activists.
The justices threw out a suit accusing two foreign-based units of Royal Dutch Shell of facilitating torture and executions in Nigeria. The majority said the 1789 Alien Tort Statute generally doesn’t apply to conduct beyond U.S. borders.
In the Shell case, “All the relevant conduct took place outside the United States,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. The justices were unanimous on the outcome in the Shell case, while dividing in their reasoning.
The ruling may help a number of companies defeat similar lawsuits. Exxon Mobil, Cisco Systems, Chiquita Brands, Siemens, Daimler and Rio Tinto Group are all fighting Alien Tort Statute claims.
Without specifically addressing those cases, Roberts said a company couldn’t be sued under the Alien Tort Statute simply because it had a “corporate presence” in the U.S.
He pointed to the “presumption against extraterritoriality,” saying that legal principle limits the reach of the Alien Tort Statute. The court’s four Democratic appointees — Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — wrote separately to say they would have reached the same result using different reasoning.
Three other justices — Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas — said in separate opinions that the ruling was a narrow one. Kennedy said the court “is careful to leave open a number of significant questions.”