Supreme Court adds step to OWI arrests

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staff, Gazette
Thursday, April 25, 2013

Prosecutors, judges and law enforcement agencies nationwide are adapting to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last week that could affect about 100 impaired-driving cases in Rock County each year.

The court ruled April 17 that police must obtain search warrants before drawing blood from drivers whom officers suspect are intoxicated.

Before the court's decision, if people suspected of driving while impaired did not consent to tests of their blood, officers took them anyway—without warrants.

"Prior to this ruling, we did not have to make that step," said Capt. Jude Maurer of the Rock County Sheriff's Office. "We just took the blood."

That is what happened in about 100 Rock County cases, Judge James Daley said.

Blood tests are required when suspects have previous OWI convictions or for cases that involve injuries or deaths in accidents, authorities said.

Ruling in the case of Missouri v. McNeely, the majority of justices said officers should get warrants before drawing blood.

"When officers in drunk-driving investigations can reasonably obtain a warrant before having a blood sample drawn … the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.

In 77 cases last year, Rock County deputies would have had to get warrants under the ruling, Maurer said. That total represents nearly one-fifth of the 413 OWI cases the sheriff's office processed in 2012.

Authorities are now working to create a system that will let police and judges process warrants quickly.

Officials from the sheriff's office, district attorney's office and 911 center met with Daley on Tuesday to figure out how to follow the law while still getting accurate samples.

"Every county in the state, and every county in the United States, is dealing with the same issue," Daley said. "We've got to set up a system which will satisfy the requirements that were identified."

The plan is to keep rotating judges "on call" for after-hours warrant requests to obtain blood samples, Janesville police Sgt. Chad Pearson said.

That system has been in place for a while, Daley said, with judges available for urgent search warrant requests outside normal business hours.

Another wrinkle in the requirement is that warrants must be hand-delivered for judges' signatures before blood can be drawn, Maurer said.

Rock County officials are working on a system that would let judges approve warrants electronically, Daley said.

For now, though, officers and deputies will have to write up affidavits and drive search warrants out to judges' houses—all while alcohol in suspects' blood could be dissipating, Pearson said.

"This is perishable evidence," Pearson said. "We have to act on these matters relatively quick."

The court did consider the time-sensitive nature of blood-alcohol evidence but ruled it was not enough of an issue to make getting a warrant unreasonable.

The requirement for warrants likely will not result in fewer OWI convictions, authorities said.

It is ultimately just another piece added to the process of making arrests, Maurer and Pearson said.

Still, they warned that having to write up affidavits and get judges to sign off on them means cases will take longer to process—time officials could spend out on patrol.

"Will it reduce the number of arrests? No. All it's going to do is add another step and lengthen the amount of time our deputies are dealing with subjects under arrest for OWI," Maurer said.

He estimated getting a warrant could take a deputy out of the field for an hour or more.

Crime won't spike because cops spend extra time in the office processing OWIs, Pearson said, but some things could go unnoticed by police who can't be in two places at once.

"This extra step is going to detract from the officer being able to go out on the street to investigate anything further or answer calls for service because they're going to be tied up with this additional step in the process," Pearson said.

When do police take blood samples?

Although the Supreme Court's ruling could have a major impact on some drunken driving cases, most OWI arrests don't rely on blood draws taken without the suspects' consent

A deputy builds a case for an OWI arrest based on a number of factors, Rock County Sheriff's Office Capt. Jude Maurer said, including a driver's behavior and performance on a field sobriety test.

Authorities can then prove a driver was impaired with a sample of his or her breath, blood or urine, Janesville Police Sgt. Chad Pearson said.

But there are a number of situations in which blood draws would be necessary:

When the law requires it. A blood test is required if someone has been cited for OWI in the past, Maurer said, or if a driver was involved in an accident with injuries or deaths.

When it's the preferred method. Authorities would often rather draw a blood sample for a case involving injuries or deaths because that test is least likely to be challenged in court, Judge James Daley said. While breath and urine tests are admissible evidence for a conviction, Daley said a blood test is seen as more reliable.

If a driver refuses. Authorities might draw a suspect's blood by force if the driver refuses to provide a breath or urine sample, Daley said.

If a driver is unable to provide a sample. Sometimes, it's the only way to obtain a sample, such as when a driver is too intoxicated to give a breath sample or has been injured and incapacitated in an accident.

Authorities used to just go ahead with blood draws in these situations whether or not the suspects consented.

After the Missouri v. McNeely decision, however, they will need search warrants before taking suspects' blood without consent.

Last updated: 10:36 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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