By Terry Baynes and Jonathan Stempel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to consider whether police must get a warrant before forcing a suspected drunken driver to submit to a blood test, in a case that could set a new legal standard for motorists' privacy.
Police in the state of Missouri argued they should not have to wait for approval to draw blood given how quickly alcohol dissipates in the bloodstream.
The state's highest court rejected that argument in a January 17 decision, saying the test violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.
According to the FBI, about 1.41 million people were arrested in the United States in 2010 for driving under the influence.
About 28 people die each day in the United States as a result of drunken driving crashes, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.
Lewis Katz, a criminal justice specialist at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, said a decision against Missouri could upend a longstanding practice by police to help thwart drunken driving.
"The Supreme Court has generally in the last four decades been sympathetic to police claims in this area of warrants, but this is an entirely different area because of the intrusion into the body," Katz said. "Invasion of the body is the greatest invasion of privacy there could be."
Tyler McNeely had been pulled over for speeding just after 2 a.m. on October 3, 2010, by a Missouri highway patrolman, who then took him to a nearby hospital. A technician measured McNeely's blood-alcohol content at 0.154 percent, nearly twice the legal limit, roughly 25 minutes after he had been pulled over.
The Missouri Supreme Court agreed with McNeely that the blood sample should be suppressed, finding that there were no "special facts" or "exigent circumstances" to justify obtaining it in a hurry.
Courts have split over whether the natural, rapid dissipation of alcohol in the bloodstream, typically 0.015 percent to 0.020 percent an hour, creates enough urgency to allow the warrantless drawing of blood.
Missouri argued that the state Supreme Court misinterpreted a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court precedent that upheld the warrantless drawing of blood from a man who had recently been in a car accident. The U.S. Supreme Court said that "special facts" justified that search.
McNeely is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. In court papers, he said at least 27 U.S. states had laws banning the warrantless, nonconsensual drawing of blood.
A decision in the Missouri case is expected in the court's upcoming term, which begins next Monday.
The case is Missouri v. McNeely, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 11-1425.
(Reporting by Terry Baynes and Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Howard Goller and Doina Chiacu)