Refusing a breath test can result in criminal penalties according to recent US Supreme Court decision

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that states cannot make it a crime for a drunken driving suspect to refuse to take a blood test but can criminalize the refusal to take breath tests to determine alcohol levels.  The ruling will affect laws in 11 states.  The justices ruled that police must obtain a search warrant before requiring drivers to take blood alcohol tests, but not breath tests.  The court considers breath tests less intrusive than blood tests, hence no need for a warrant.  The ruling came in three cases in which drivers challenged so-called implied consent laws in Minnesota and North Dakota as violating the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.  Other states that have criminalized a driver’s refusal to take alcohol blood or breath tests include Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

Implied consent laws make the assumption that by driving on a state’s roads, you are deemed to have consented to testing if you are suspected of drunk driving.  All fifty states have imposed some form of implied consent laws.  Many states have tough laws if a driver is found to be driving under the influence.  These tough laws have created a problem of their own: drivers, particularly those who have had a lot to drink or have prior drunk driving convictions, may opt to refuse the tests, because the consequences of doing so may be less severe than what they would face if convicted of drunk driving. This dilemma led the eleven states mentioned above to create statutes that make refusing alcohol testing a crime.

Alcohol testing is a physical trespass search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and therefore it must fall within a Fourth Amendment exception in order to be conducted without a warrant.  The Court ruled two years ago in a case involving the search of an arrestee’s cellphone, courts should instead look at the extent to which the search intrudes on the privacy of the person who is being arrested, as well as the extent to which the search is needed to promote “legitimate governmental interests.”  The Court today held that there is no real physical intrusion from the breathalyzer test, and that keeping drunk drivers off of the street is a legitimate government interest.By contrast, the Court concluded today, blood tests do not pass constitutional muster to be conducted without a warrant.  Although they too help promote “legitimate government interests,” they are “significantly more intrusive” than breath tests: they require the technician taking the sample to pierce the driver’s skin, extracting a sample that provides law enforcement officials with more information than a breath test.

Now that the Court has decided that a warrant is not required for a breath test, the Court has opened the door for all fifty states to be able to pass legislation criminalizing refusal to submit to a breath test.  Expect to see police officers resort to breath tests whenever possible from now on to avoid the warrant of the blood test.

For information about Massachusetts OUI laws, read more on my blog.

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