Professor Ron Wright, Jones Byrd (’02) discuss U.S. Supreme Court weighing DWI case

In most cases, police officers have to get a warrant to search your home, but in North Carolina, they don’t need one to get a sample of your blood if you’re accused of driving while impaired.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether or not that’s constitutional in a case from Missouri. The court hasn’t ruled yet, but whatever decision it makes will have wide implications in North Carolina, which is among about half the states that allow warrantless searches in DWI cases.

A person charged with DWI has the right to refuse to provide a sample of blood or take a breathalyzer, but that person’s driver’s license is automatically revoked for at least a year.

State law does allow a law-enforcement officer to compel someone who refuses to provide a blood or urine sample if that officer has probable cause to believe that the blood-alcohol concentration will dissipate before the officer can get a search warrant.

“In Forsyth County, it is rare to have a refusal of a breath sample where blood has not been taken,” said Jones Byrd (’02), a Winston-Salem lawyer who specializes in DWI cases.

At the center of the U.S. Supreme Court case is Tyler G. McNeely, who was stopped for speeding on a highway in Missouri. McNeely refused to take a breath test and declined to have his blood taken later at the hospital. The blood was taken anyway and showed a blood alcohol level of 0.15 percent, close to twice the legal limit, according to the New York Times. A decision in this case is expected in the summer.

A similar case in Forsyth County has gone all the way to the N.C. Court of Appeals, which hasn’t ruled yet. In that case, Kelvin Deon Wilson, a Winston-Salem man, said his rights were violated when a Winston-Salem police officer sat on him while he was lying on a hospital bed and ordered a nurse to take his blood. A Forsyth Superior Court judge overturned his conviction in January 2012, and the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office appealed the case to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

Kathleen Joyce, Wilson’s appellate attorney, said Thursday that the N.C. Court of Appeals reviewed the case Nov. 15. She said she is waiting for the court to issue its decision.

“There are provisions under North Carolina law to compel a blood draw but there needs to be urgency,” she said. “There needs to be a reason why.”

Ron Wright, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, said he was surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court took up the Missouri case. There hadn’t been much legal debate about this area of the law, he said.

“It means that the court is looking to make some change,” he said. “At the end of the day, it could mean that it could be easier for police to gather evidence of a DWI. … It could expand the flexibility of law enforcement in this case and might spill over into other areas.”

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