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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho Supreme Court: Warrant needed for DUI blood test if suspect refuses

Police must get warrants before drawing blood from suspected drunken drivers who refuse to cooperate, the Idaho Supreme Court has decided in two Kootenai County cases.

The opinions follow a national trend of courts limiting warrantless blood draws and suppressing evidence obtained from such samples.

In both of the local cases, a suspect was arrested and taken to a hospital where his blood was drawn under protest. Both men argued they did not consent to a warrantless search, and the results of the blood tests were suppressed by 1st District Court Judge Benjamin R. Simpson.

The state argued that Idaho’s implied consent law provides a valid exception to the warrant requirement. But Idaho’s justices agreed with Simpson and held that an implied consent statute “does not justify a warrantless blood draw from a driver who refuses to consent … or objects to the blood draw.”

“It is a big decision. It’s going to affect a fair number of cases that are already in the pike,” said Justin Curtis, a deputy state appellate public defender in Boise.

The decisions effectively reverse the Supreme Court’s position.

“At least since 2007 it’s been the law in Idaho” that the implied consent law allows for a warrantless blood draw even if somebody refuses, said Curtis, who argued for the defendant in one of the local cases the court heard on appeal.

The rulings in Idaho and other states follow a 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that the natural metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream does not alone present an urgent need that justifies taking blood without the required Fourth Amendment warrant. In that case, Missouri v. McNeely, the court held that such a justification must be determined case by case.

Since then, state courts have held that implied consent laws also cannot be used as a general justification for warrantless searches. But in some circumstances authorities may be able to use evidence from a warrantless blood draw if they show it was impractical or impossible to get a warrant in time before the alcohol was no longer present in the blood.

Given today’s technology, most of the time law enforcement agencies are able to obtain a warrant in time, courts have concluded.

Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger said Tuesday that his department’s procedure changed in early 2013 “so that we get search warrants for forced blood draws.”

The Idaho State Police also changed its practice after the McNeely decision last year. Since then, “it has been standard practice for ISP to obtain a search warrant for a blood draw in a DUI investigation if there isn’t consent,” said Teresa Baker, the agency’s public information officer.

The Idaho Supreme Court first ruled Oct. 29 in a Kootenai County case involving Micah Wulff, who was stopped by a sheriff’s deputy for speeding on Oct. 23, 2012. Wulff admitted he had been drinking and struggled with field sobriety tests. He was arrested and refused a breath test.

The deputy took him to the hospital for a blood draw. Wulff became uncooperative as a nurse prepared his arm for the draw and said, “You’re not touching me,” the court record shows. After two security officers arrived, Wulff allowed the nurse to take his blood, which showed an alcohol content of 0.217, almost three times the legal limit for driving. He was charged with felony DUI.

Wulff moved to suppress the blood draw results, arguing that he did not consent to it and that there were no emergency circumstances allowing a warrantless draw. The district court granted his motion to suppress the evidence, citing the McNeely case.

The second Kootenai County case, which the Idaho justices ruled on Tuesday, involves a suspect who crossed from Idaho into Washington, where he was arrested.

Dennis Halseth was driving a truck with stolen Washington license plates when he was pulled over by a Post Falls police officer on Nov. 5, 2012. Halseth drove off, striking the officer’s patrol car. He was arrested across the border in Otis Orchards. He refused sobriety tests and was taken to a Spokane hospital, where Halseth protested the blood draw. Despite his protests, a hospital technician drew blood from both arms.

He was charged in Idaho with DUI and other crimes, and he also had his blood test results suppressed in district court on the same grounds. Halseth, who had prior convictions, was found guilty earlier this year of burglary, grand theft, eluding an officer and leaving the scene of an accident, and sentenced to 20 years in jail.