A United States Supreme Court ruling changes the ability of law enforcement to force a person to submit to chemical blood testing after a DUI arrest and to levy criminal penalties for refusal without a warrant.
Currently, at least 13 states, operating under "implied consent" laws, allow criminal prosecution for refusal to submit to a breath or blood test subsequent to a DUI arrest. However, recent rulings in three appeals presented to the Supreme Court have, in part, limited the ability of law enforcement to force a test without a warrant and to charge a person with a crime for refusal of a warrantless test. However, the Supreme Court limits its ruling to blood tests, not requiring a warrant for breath tests.
The decision is the culmination of three separate appeals, which were consolidated into one case: Birchfield v. North Dakota:
- Danny Birchfield appealed his conviction for refusal of a blood test, saying that the threat of criminal prosecution for refusal to submit to a blood test without a warrant was a violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
- Steven Beyland, also in North Dakota, was convicted of DUI after he consented to a blood test without a warrant. His consent, he said, was under duress after he was threatened with criminal prosecution for refusal.
- William Bernard, Jr., was convicted in Minnesota for refusal to submit to a breath test without a warrant.
The Supreme Court's majority opinion determined that a blood test is invasive and intrusive on privacy, and thus requires a warrant. Without a warrant, a person cannot be criminally prosecuted for refusal to consent.
However, the Court ruling did not extend to breath tests. Justice Samuel Alito explained the majority opinion:
"Because breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests and in most cases amply serve law enforcement interests, we conclude that a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving. As in all cases involving reasonable searches incident to arrest, a warrant is not needed in this situation."
But not all Justices agreed with this "compromise" ruling. In a dissenting opinion, shared by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote:
"This court has never said that mere convenience in gathering evidence justifies an exception to the warrant requirement. I fear that if the court continues down this road, the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement will become nothing more than a suggestion."
Justice Clarence Thomas also dissented with the compromise, but for different reasons that Justices Sotomayor and Ginsberg. Instead of finding that law enforcement should constitutionally require a warrant for both breath and blood tests, he believes that constitutional exceptions mean that police are protected from needing a warrant for chemical testing subsequent to a DUI arrest.
The 5-3 decision meant different things for each of the appellants.
Birchfield, who refused a blood test, had his conviction for refusal overturned, since police did not obtain a warrant and, therefore, could not require consent.
Beyland, who consented under duress, had his conviction vacated, but remanded back to the lower court.
Bernard, however, is out of luck with this ruling. His conviction for refusal to consent was affirmed because of the compromise decision that requires warrants only for blood tests, and not for the breath test he refused.