WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared reluctant Wednesday to let police routinely order blood tests for unwilling drunken-driving suspects without at least trying to obtain a search warrant from a judge.
The court heard arguments Wednesday in a case about a disputed blood test from Missouri, against the backdrop of a serious national problem of more than 10,000 deaths from crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers in 2010, about one every 51 minutes.
That number has dropped by 60 percent in the past 20 years because of a sustained national crackdown on drunken driving. Lawyers for Missouri and the Obama administration argued that dispensing with a warrant requirement would further that effort because any delay in testing a suspect's blood-alcohol content allows alcohol to dissipate in the blood.
"Here, police are facing the certain destruction of blood-alcohol evidence," Justice Department lawyer Nicole Saharsky said.
But justices across the ideological spectrum questioned whether the intrusive procedure of sticking a needle in someone's arm to draw blood should routinely be done without the approval of a judge. At the same time, they made clear they did not want to unduly delay the collection of blood samples.
Justice Antonin Scalia asked, "Why shouldn't that determination be made case by case? … And if it would have taken too long, then it's okay without a warrant. If it wouldn't have taken that long, it's bad."
Wednesday's case stemmed from the arrest of Tyler McNeely in rural Cape Girardeau County, Mo. A state trooper stopped McNeely's speeding, swerving car and the driver, who had two previous drunken-driving convictions, refused to submit to a breath test.
He failed several field sobriety tests and the arresting officer, Cpl. Mark Winder of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said McNeely's speech was slurred and he was unsteady on his feet.
Winder drove McNeely to a hospital. A technician drew blood from McNeely, who was handcuffed.
McNeely's blood-alcohol content was .154 percent, well above the .08 percent legal limit. But the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a lower court order that threw out the results.
The state high court said the blood test violated the Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. Police need a warrant to take a suspect's blood except when a delay could threaten a life or destroy potential evidence, the court said.
About half the states already prohibit warrantless blood tests in all or most suspected drunken-driving cases.
A decision from the Supreme Court is expected by summer.