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US Supreme Court Gives Drunk Drivers a Pass

The Supreme Court of the United States today released its opinion in the case Birchfield v. North Dakota, a case we've followed closely since its oral arguments in April.

The central question in the case was whether, in the absence of a warrant, a state may make it a crime for a driver to refuse a chemical test to detect the presence of alcohol in the person’s blood. It also determined whether such warrantless blood and breath tests are a violation of our Fourth Amendment right prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure.

The Court struck down criminal penalties for refusing to submit to a blood test, however, refusal to submit to a breath test may still result in criminal penalties.

In his opinion, Justice Alito stated:

“Motorists may not be criminally punished for refusing to submit to a blood test based on legally implied consent to submit to them. It is one thing to approve implied-consent laws that impose civil penalties and evidentiary consequences on motorists who refuse to comply, but quite another for a State to insist upon an intrusive blood test and then to impose criminal penalties on refusal to submit. 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.”

On the question of warrantless BAC tests, the court ruled:

“Because the impact of breath tests on privacy is slight, and the need for BAC testing is great, the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving. Blood tests, however, are significantly more intrusive, and their reasonableness must be judged in light of the availability of the less invasive alternative of a breath test…Because breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests and in most cases amply serve law enforcement interests, a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving. No warrant is needed in this situation.”

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Kagan joined Justice Alito in his opinion. Junior Justice Sotomayor filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Justice Ginsburg joined. Justice Thomas also filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

While we are happy to see warrantless breath tests upheld, today’s decision does not go far enough.

It is a roadblock to fighting drunk and drugged driving. BAC test results are often the most important piece of evidence in a DUI trial. Striking down criminal penalties for test refusal will result in more refusals, more plea bargains and tougher cases for prosecutors.

Today's decision reinforces our strong belief that states should implement ‘No Refusal’ type programs, which quickly secure warrants for blood tests and compel BAC results. These programs are in compliance with today’s decision and prevent suspects from escaping consequences for drunk and drugged driving.

For more information on the decision, and commentary from our President and CEO Ralph Blackman, read this article from The Washington Post.

Georgia joined our communications team in the summer of 2015 in her role as a media associate. A Wake Forest University graduate with a background in journalism and public relations, she enjoys working for such a positive and impactful organization.

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