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Supreme Court Holds Fourth Amendment Permits Warrantless Breath Tests, But Not Warrantless Blood Tests

The United States Supreme Court recently held in three consolidated appeals that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrest for drunk driving, but not warrantless blood tests.

To combat drunk driving, all states prohibit individuals from driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over a prescribed level. BAC is generally determined using a blood or breath test. To enforce drivers’ cooperation, states have enacted “implied consent” laws requiring drivers to submit to BAC tests. The initial penalty for refusing these tests was a drivers’ license suspension. Over time, however, states have strengthened their DUI laws and have imposed stricter penalties for defendants with high BAC levels. Therefore, drivers fearing harsher punishments have greater reason to refuse testing. Some states now make it illegal to reject testing.

In the case before the Supreme Court, the three petitioners — Danny Birchfield, William Robert Bernard, and Steve Michale Beylund — were arrested for DUI. All three were arrested in states that make it a crime to refuse BAC testing (North Dakota and Minnesota). Birchfield and Bernard rejected testing and were charged under their respective states’ refusal statutes.  Both petitioners argued that the Fourth Amendment did not permit criminalizing their rejection of the test. While the North Dakota courts rejected this argument, the Minnesota court held the other way and dismissed the charges.

Beylund’s arresting officer took him to a hospital and read him North Dakota’s implied consent law, which stated that refusing the test would be a crime. Beylund consented to a blood test, and his license was thereafter suspended. The lower courts rejected his argument that his consent to testing was coerced.

The United States Supreme Court concluded that while warrantless breath tests are permissible under the Fourth Amendment, warrantless blood tests are not. Writing for the 7-1 majority, Justice Alito reasoned that breath tests entail a minor physical intrusion to capture something regularly exposed to the public, divulge limited information, and don’t increase the embarrassment of arrest. Breath tests therefore do not implicate serious privacy interests. Blood tests, on the other hand, implicate greater privacy concerns because they are significantly more invasive. They require the skin to be pierced, and they generate a sample that can be saved and used to gather information other than the suspect’s BAC.

Alito further wrote that criminalizing a defendant’s rejection of a breath test serves the government’s interest in preventing drunk driving and is more effective than alternative methods. The same rationale, however, does not apply to criminalizing the rejection of a blood test because a blood test entails a greater intrusion, and the alternative of a breath test is available.

In her partial concurrence and partial dissent, Justice Sotomayor argued that the Fourth Amendment should prohibit warrantless breath tests unless exigent circumstances exist. Justice Ginsburg joined Sotomayor in concurring in part and dissenting in part.

In a separate partial concurrence and partial dissent, Justice Thomas wrote that the search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment should apply to all BAC tests, including blood tests. He argued that in drawing a line between blood and breath tests, the majority undermined the law and made it more difficult for both police officers and lower courts to do their jobs.

If you have been charged with a DUI crime in Illinois, it is crucial to speak to an experienced Illinois DUI lawyer as soon as possible. Harvatin Law Offices, PC provides knowledgeable representation to people in Springfield and throughout Illinois. We have considerable experience defending individuals charged with DUI offenses and representing drivers with revoked licenses before the Illinois Secretary of State. To learn more, and to set up a free initial consultation, contact us online or call us at 217.525.0520.

More Blog Posts:

Illinois Appeals Court Upholds DUI Defendant’s Summary Suspension Despite Hearing Delay, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, June 2, 2016.

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That Officer’s Assertion of Lawful Authority to Search Does Not Negate Totality of the Circumstances Test, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, May 7, 2016.

New Mexico Governor Announces Program to Monitor DUI Cases, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, May 2, 2016.

Florida Judge Upholds Defendant’s 33-year Sentence for DUI Manslaughter, Illinois DUI Lawyer Blawg, April 6, 2016.

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