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SCOTUS Reinforces a State's Right to Perform a Breathalyzer Test Without a Warrant

SCOTUS Reinforces a State's Right to Perform a Breathalyzer Test Without a Warrant.jpgThe U.S. Supreme Court determined, by a 5-3 majority, that states can legally require suspected drunk drivers to take a breath test without a warrant. The court also held that warrantless blood tests are unconstitutional. The holding will have a significant impact on suspected drunk drivers. 

For example, a suspected drunk driver that refuses to consent to a breath test may face criminal penalties. In contrast, if the police do not obtain a warrant for a blood test, the suspected drunk driver can refuse to take one and not be subjected to criminal penalties. Read on to learn more about the holding. 

Case Background

The consolidated cases, referred to as Birchfield v. North Dakota, derived from three separate drunk driving arrests. The individuals arrested were prosecuted or later prosecuted for refusing to consent to a breath or blood test. At issue was whether states could impose criminal penalties on suspected drunken drivers who refused to take a breath test to measure the amount of alcohol within their body. The plaintiffs in this case contended that such laws were unconstitutional unless a police officer first obtained a warrant prior to conducting the breath test.

The Supreme Court Holding

The Supreme Court held that officers can require a warrantless breath test and enforce criminal penalties against non-compliant drivers. The court also reaffirmed its holding that the state must obtain a warrant before requiring suspects to undergo a blood test. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority, noted that a blood draw is more intrusive than a breath test.

As a result of this ruling, the court held that Danny Birchfield, the defendant arrested in North Dakota for refusing a blood test, should have his case overturned. Defendant William Bernard, Jr., who was prosecuted in Minnesota for refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test, had his conviction upheld. For the third case heard under Birchfield, the court recommended the case be sent back to the lower court. The defendant in that case, Steve Beylund, was forced to consent to a blood test under the threat of prosecution in North Dakota. The court held that a lower court should review the case in light of the court's ruling that warrantless blood test cannot be mandated under the threat of criminal penalty.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sonia Sotomayor wrote a partial dissent to the court's ruling. Both argued that warrants should be required for all cases.

"This court has never said that mere convenience in gathering evidence justifies an exception to the warrant requirement," Sotomayor wrote. "I fear that if the court continues down this road, the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement will become nothing more than a suggestion."

In Michigan, the state must have consent or a warrant in order to perform a blood test. If a blood test is performed without a warrant or your consent, it can be challenged in court. I invite you to contact my law office to discuss your drunk driving arrest in confidence. Do not delay in obtaining legal counsel. Doing so can harm your case.


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