Driving under the influence of alcohol is a common offense in the United States of America. Sobriety tests and blood analysis are two common ways of testing for alcohol consumption. The offense is a misdemeanor and therefore rarely gets to the Supreme Court. Recent questions have however arisen pertaining as to whether warrants to conduct blood tests should be obtained or not. The United States Supreme Court was engaged in the case of The People of the State of Colorado v Jack Lee Schaufele.
Schaufele was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol on May 30 2012. He was involved in a car accident on that day. Two officers who arrived at the scene recalled that the accused had a “thick tongue” and “sluggish speech”. They however associated these to the impact of the accident and as such felt no need to draw a blood sample from him. Furthermore, a paramedic at the scene smelled Schaufele’s breath and did not suspect or detect possible alcohol consumption.
A third officer who arrived at the scene later was briefed on the situation and accompanied the victim to hospital. She smelled alcohol on the person of the accused and attempted to speak to him. This further revealed unintelligible answers given by the Schaufele. He also had red and watery eyes.
Recognizing that these were symptoms associated with alcohol consumption, she directed a nurse to draw blood from the accused for forensic analysis. Schaufele could not give consent as required by the Colorado law as he was asleep or unconscious. This happened approximately an hour after the accident. Drawing blood was seen as a search in this matter as it involved intrusion into the skin of the suspect. Noteworthy at this point is the fact that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution makes it unlawful to conduct unreasonable searches and seizures.
A forensic analysis of the blood sample was done and revealed that the blood alcohol level of the accused was well beyond the statutory limit. The prosecution sought to use these findings as evidence against the accused at the Colorado Supreme Court. The sample was however held inadmissible on the basis that no warrant to search the person of the accused had been obtained.
As a result of this ruling, Arapahoe County Prosecutors made an appeal to the United States Supreme Court seeking to have the blood sample admitted as evidence. The Supreme court on Monday January 12, 2015 however upheld the decision of the Colorado Supreme Court that a search warrant should have been obtained before the blood sample was drawn. The same court in 2013 ruled that a justification as to why a warrant was not sought should be otherwise made.
The same court has in the past allowed warrant-less searches where the case falls under specific exceptions. It would thus be interesting to see how this plays out as the record isn’t really clearly explained as to whether or not there are exceptional circumstances where a warrant may not have to be sought in order to conduct a blood test, aside from situations of property damage or serious bodily injury.
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