Police, when investigating suspected driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases in New Jersey, must obtain a warrant, or a suspect’s consent, to collect blood samples under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The “exigent circumstances” exception allows warrantless searches when taking the time to obtain a warrant would create a significant risk that evidence will be lost or destroyed. New Jersey courts currently look at the “totality of the circumstances” when considering warrantless blood draws. A recent ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, State v. Zalcberg, considers this question in light of recent changes to the law and police officers’ accompanying uncertainty.
The New Jersey DWI statute allows the state to prove impairment based solely on a defendant’s blood alcohol content (BAC), making this sort of evidence very important to the state. Time is an important factor, since alcohol breaks down in the bloodstream over time. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the gradual dissipation of alcohol, by itself, is not an exigent circumstance for Fourth Amendment purposes in 2013’s Missouri v. McNeely.
In 2015’s State v. Adkins, the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted a rather narrow view of McNeely’s effect on New Jersey DWI cases. Cases decided after McNeely, including cases that were “in the pipeline” at the time McNeely was decided, are bound by that precedent. New Jersey municipal and trial courts could, however, give “substantial weight” to dissipation in determining whether the exigent circumstances should apply. While dissipation could not qualify as an exception to the warrant requirement on its own, the court effectively said that it was a major circumstance among the totality of the circumstances. This became important in Zalcberg.