MADISON (WKOW) -- Catching drunk drivers has become a bit of a longer process for law enforcement officers, after the United States Supreme Court decided that officers must obtain search warrants before drawing blood from suspected drunk drivers.
On April 17, the nation's highest court ruled in favor of the defendant in Missouri v. McNeely. Tyler McNeely, who would have been facing his third drunk driving offense, refused to provide a blood sample. When police ordered medical technicians to take his blood despite his protests, McNeely said his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches was violated. He then asked that the results – showing his blood-alcohol content was above the legal limit – be thrown out.
The court's decision is already making an impact in Wisconsin, one of the states that did not require forced blood draws previously.
"The McNeely case affects felony OWI cases, so beginning at third offense or greater," Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney said.
Sheriff Mahoney says his department does not take blood during first and second OWI offenses unless there is also a major incident such as an accident.
WKOW found that police requested OWI search warrants at least 10 times since the Supreme Court ruling. Though, some of these cases could be due to drunk-driving accidents and not traffic stops, according to Mahoney.
However, the additional paperwork is adding some time to officers' workloads.
"It ties up more deputy sheriffs. Somebody has to go get the warrant while somebody remains with the arrested person," Mahoney said.
The process of obtaining a warrant takes about an extra hour, Mahoney estimated. If it's in the middle of the night, police must wake up a judge to sign it.
Some police had argued the time it took to obtain a warrant was crucial, and every minute was a chance for drunk drivers to sober up. However, Mahoney says very few of the cases that come through the system are borderline, or just barely over the .08 level, when an hour would mean the legal difference between drunk and sober.
Attorney Mark Eisenberg says "people extrapolate backwards," adding to a suspect's blood alcohol retroactively. For example, "if I'm at .05 at 3:00 p.m. and that's when I draw the blood and the incident happened at say 1:00 p.m. I know that if I add .15 x 2 hours, now I'm at .08 at the time when I'm driving. And that would hold up in court," Eisenberg said.
Eisenberg says the Supreme Court ruling could have an effect on pending drunk driving cases, even if the incidents occurred before the decision came down.
"One of the questions is: Is it going to be retroactive?" Eisenberg said. "Cases that are still pending: those I think you might be able to argue. Cases that have been finalized, where the person has pled and sentenced: I'm not so sure that's going to be able to be reopened."
Eisenberg has four clients whose drunk driving cases are pending. One of them has a hearing in early June.
Police are continuing to monitor times it takes to obtain OWI search warrants, looking at switching to electronic signatures if delays become a problem, according to Mahoney.
For now, Mahoney says police are taking the new rule in stride.
"Like everything else," Mahoney said. "It's just a process in how we collect the evidence. And blood is the evidence."
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