Supreme Court To Decide On Charging Motorists Without Warrants Refusing Breathalyzer

By McCarton Ackerman 12/15/15

The landmark case will decide whether or not a driver can refuse a breathalyzer.

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The U.S. Supreme Court will soon make a landmark decision on whether states can charge motorists with a crime if they refuse to take a breath test on suspicion of drunk driving when police lack a warrant.

Justices will hear individual cases out of Minnesota and North Dakota that involve motorists being charged with a crime after refusing to take breath tests. They are two of 13 states that have made it a crime to refuse blood alcohol tests. Four other states have also considered adopting similar laws, including California and Missouri.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state after they successfully argued that the breath tests were requested after the motorist was arrested, and that they waited until receiving a warrant to seek blood and urine tests. The Supreme Court previously ruled in 2013 that police needed a warrant in order to conduct blood tests for drunk driving. But the challengers in the case believe that “the federal constitutional rights of all of these people are being infringed.”

Earlier this year, a DUI-related program was debated in Montana Supreme Court over whether it was constitutional. The 24/7 Sobriety Act began in 2012 and exists in a dozen counties throughout the state, forcing repeat offenders to take twice-daily breath tests and cover the expenses themselves—$2 for a breath test and $10 for a drug screen or wearing an ankle bracelet for the day. Missing a single test results in a warrant for their arrest and flunking means automatically going to jail.

Robert E. Spady was charged with three misdemeanor counts of criminal contempt, but his attorney argued that the act was unconstitutional because participants are enrolled in the act prior to being convicted and amounts to unlawful search and seizure. The Montana Attorney General’s Office said the act addressed the state’s problem with drinking and driving and kept residents safe from repeat offenders on the road.

The state Supreme Court ruled in July that while the 24/7 Sobriety Act was not unconstitutional in and of itself; only in the way it had been applied to Spady. His contempt charges were dismissed because the trial court never conducted an individual assessment to determine if he was an appropriate candidate for the program.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.