The use of digital search warrants in driving-while-intoxicated investigations is part of a growing trend in Missouri, most recently in Miller County, as announced by County Prosecutor Matt Howard.
Jason Lamb, executive director of the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services in the state attorney general's office, said approximately 15 other Missouri counties, including Cole County, have done this, and it has been effective.
"There is nothing at all illegal about this because it still has due process of the law," Lamb said. "It's simply a policy to seek a search warrant in every DWI that involves the refusal of a suspect to give a sample to be tested."
Counties that have adopted this process have given law officers in their jurisdictions a digital search warrant that can be processed and issued electronically by courts to authorize a blood draw.
"We've been very pleased since we started using this a couple of years ago," said Cole County Sheriff Chief Deputy John Wheeler. "It's helped in convictions because this can help us get to the blood since that is better than just a breath test. Blood tests give much more accurate information about a person's alcohol levels."
The "no-refusal" policy relies on digital transmission of documents and electronic signatures, which allows the search warrant to be in the hands of the officer within a few minutes without having to leave the patrol car or police station.
"We get our warrants back in 30 minutes or less," Wheeler said. "Once we get it back, we take the suspect to the hospital to get a blood draw."
"DWI is no different from any other crime," Lamb said. "If you have a burglary, you have evidence and you seek a search warrant to get it. In a murder, you have evidence since you'd be looking for a weapon. In a rape case, you have DNA and seek a search warrant there.
"For DWI, a defendant has the right to refuse to give it (breath sample), but the state has the right to ask a judge for a search warrant to allow them to get a draw."
Lamb noted that judges and prosecutors are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and search warrants are routinely sought in felony DWI cases like third offenses or higher or in cases involving a death.
"All this is is a request," Lamb said. "The judge still has to be contacted" to get his approval for the warrant, "even if it's 3 a.m."
Recently, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys adopted recommendations on no-refusal policies for DWI cases, saying that prosecutors and law enforcement should use electronic means to obtain search warrants.
"Time is of the essence in impaired driving cases," the document reads. "When feasible, using email or other electronic means to communicate with law enforcement and judges will cut down on the time it takes to get a blood sample from the suspect."
The recommendations also state that prosecutors and law enforcement should draft language - in addition to the implied consent warnings - to inform defendants that if they refuse a test, the officer will seek a warrant.
"Many defendants who initially refuse to submit to a breath test may change their minds when they are told that the officer is going to seek a warrant," Lamb said. "Prosecutors believe adding this language will cut down on the overall number of refusals and overall number of requests from law enforcement to obtain a search warrant for blood."