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Supreme Court Rules DUI Blood Tests Need Warrants

Tagged under: News USA Criminal Justice Supreme Court
By Expeal on June 23, 2016.

Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi found this picture of a DUI checkpoint.

In a ruling handed down today, the Supreme Court ruled (PDF warning) on three different arrests that are wrapped up in Birchfield v. North Dakota. In a nearly unanimous ruling, the justices decided that it is a crime for motorists to refuse breath tests but not blood tests.

Considering the way DUI laws have developed nationwide, it is almost always in a person's benefit to refuse any drunk driving test that they think they may fail. As a result of this tactic, at least eleven states, including North Dakota and Minnesota, have made it a crime to refuse those tests.

In the first case, Danny Birchfield was arrested by the North Dakota state trooper who pulled him over and asked for a blood test. At the same time, Mr. Birchfield was informed that it was a crime to refuse the test. Despite the warning, Mr. Birchfield refused and he was charged with a misdemeanor. He entered a conditional guilty plea, but argued that "the Fourth Amendment prohibited criminalizing his refusal to submit to the test."

In the second case, William Robert Bernard, Jr. was arrested by a police officer in Minnesota. The officer took him to the police station, where Mr. Bernard was read his rights and told he had to submit to a breath test or face being charged with a crime. Mr. Bernard refused and was thus charged with a first degree misdemeanor.

In the third and final case, Steve Michael Beylund was arrested by a police officer in North Dakota and taken to a nearby hospital. At the hospital, Mr. Beylund was informed of the North Dakota implied consent rules and told that refusing a blood test would be a crime. Mr. Beylund agreed and was found to have three times the acceptable blood alcohol content.

After reading the briefs and listening to oral arguments, the Justices reached a decision that breath tests are not covered by the Fourth Amendment, but blood tests are. In the majority decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court stated that breath tests do not implicate a "significant privacy concern". Blood tests were different because they pierce the skin and leave a biological sample in the government's possession. Because of that fact, the court ruled a warrant should be obtained except for in "extraordinary circumstances."

The Court followed precedent from Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives' Assn. and Schmerber v. California, determining that when a blood sample is taken or a breath test administered, the Fourth Amendment is implicated. The Court also pointed out that because of Missouri v. McNeely, these searches may be exempt from requiring a warrant if they fall within the exception of searches conducted incident to a lawful arrest. The Court held that since this case involves searches being conducted in the process of making a DUI arrest, Missouri must be considered.

Citing ancient history, the Court stated that "the search-incident-to-arrest doctrine has ancient pedigree that predates the Nation's founding, and no historical evidence suggests that the Fourth Amendment altered the permissible bounds of arrestee searches." With that in mind, the Court had to consider whether a search invades a person's privacy versus the efforts to promote legitimate government interests.

In analyzing breath tests, the Court found that Skinner gave them the precedent they needed to determine it does not constitute an invasion of privacy. There is minimum inconvenience on the part of the defendant and zero penetration of the skin. Furthermore, no DNA or biological material is left in the hands of government officials and a person is not anymore embarrassed than they would otherwise be in any other arrest scenario.

A blood test, on the other hand, is different. A needle has to be used to "pierce the skin" and "extract a part of the subject's body", something that Skinner already determined to be much more than just blowing into a tube. A blood test also gives authorities a sample of the defendant's biological material that can be kept, preserved, and used to extra information from in the future. The Court itself stated that such an idea "could cause anxiety for the person tested."

While looking at the arguments made by the State, the Court found that their arguments could be summarized in three main points. First, making it a crime to refuse a BAC test gave people an incentive to cooperate and allowed the state to continue promoting and preserving public highway safety, as Mackey v. Montrym made clear they have compelling interest in doing. Second, requiring a warrant for every single BAC test would result in swamping the courts. Third and finally, requiring a warrant for every BAC search would allow time for evidence to be destroyed, whether in terms of metabolizing in the defendant's body or otherwise.

The court ruled that they were convinced breath tests were perfectly fine but nothing in the arguments could justify taking blood without a warrant. Even an officer in the most rural parts of this country could call a magistrate and get a warrant within hours. Furthermore, as for the implied consent laws, criminal punishment is impermissible as it relates to refusal to taking a blood test without a warrant. The Court made clear, there must be a limit to the consequences to which motorists may be deemed to have consented by virtue of a decision to drive on public roads.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying he would have found both tests completely fine. Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsbug concurred, but said they would have gone even further and required a warrant for both types of tests.

The state attorneys were supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving while the majority of civil liberties group were opposed to the states, arguing that you can't criminalize the assertion of a person's constitutional rights.

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