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Police in Florida Were Permitted to Force a Blood Draw in DUI Manslaughter Case Without a Warrant

When the police want to search a person’s property, or search a person, they normally need consent from that person or a search warrant signed by a judge.  However, that general rule does have exceptions.  In most DUI cases, the police officer will request that the subject submit to a non-invasive breathalyzer test to determine the blood alcohol level.  Other times, the police officer may request a blood draw.  The police cannot request a blood draw in just any DUI case.  There are rules that limit when the police can request blood for alcohol testing in DUI cases.  And when police request blood in a DUI case and the suspect refuses, the police normally cannot force a blood draw without a search warrant.

As stated, there are exceptions to this rule, and one that applies at times in DUI cases is the exigent circumstances exception.  Exigent circumstances under the law generally means there is a risk that the evidence in a DUI case (the alcohol in the suspect’s blood) will be lost if the evidence is not obtained in a timely manner.  This can be particularly relevant in a DUI case as the alcohol in a person’s body dissipates as the body’s metabolism takes effect.

The fact that alcohol dissipates in a person’s body is not a sufficient reason, by itself, to force a blood draw without a search warrant after a suspect refuses the blood draw.  Other factors must be present.

In a recent DUI manslaughter case south of Jacksonville, Florida, a crash occurred at about 1:00 a.m.  The suspect fled the scene at first, but ultimately returned about an hour later.  In the crash, the victim’s vehicle was pushed off of the road and the police did not locate it until about two and a half hours after the crash.  When they found the vehicle, they learned that the victim had died.  It was approximately three hours after the crash when the police determined they had enough evidence to believe the suspect was impaired from alcohol at the time of the crash, the victim had died and the suspect was at the hospital where blood could be drawn. The police asked if the suspect would consent to a blood draw, and he refused.  Rather than seek a search warrant for his blood, the police took the suspect’s blood by force.  The blood was later tested, and the suspect’s blood alcohol level was more than two times the legal limit.

The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the blood test results arguing that the police illegally took his blood by force without a search warrant or consent.  The court denied the motion, finding that there were exigent circumstances that allowed the police to obtain the blood for alcohol testing without a search warrant.  In this case, the police did not develop probable cause for the DUI manslaughter until about three hours after the crash.  After the suspect refused the blood draw, the police officer testified it would have taken another two and a half hours to obtain a search warrant from a judge at that hour.  During that approximately five and a half hour period after the crash, the alleged alcohol in the suspect’s blood was dissipating.

The fact that the body’s metabolism dissipates alcohol in the system, which occurs in every DUI case involving alcohol, is not always going to be a reason to allow the police to draw blood without a search warrant.  The courts will look at the circumstances of each case.  The important factors here included the fact that the suspect left the scene after the crash which initially caused the delay and the total time that elapsed between the crash and the discovery of the relevant evidence, which was also caused, at least in part, by the suspect.  Of course, this being a manslaughter case rather than a standard DUI was also surely a factor.