Supreme Court: Warrants Required For Blood Alcohol Tests, Not Breathalyzers

By McCarton Ackerman 06/27/16

The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-3 decision that blood alcohol tests are too "intrusive" and must require a warrant. 

Supreme Court: Warrants Required For Blood Alcohol Tests, Not Breathalyzers

The Supreme Court has stepped in when it comes to laws regarding drunk-driving tests, ruling on Thursday that search warrants must be obtained before requiring drivers to take blood alcohol tests, but not for breath tests.

The Associated Press reported the ruling came in three individual cases that challenged so-called implied consent laws in North Dakota and Minnesota, arguing that they violated the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable seizures and searches. The plaintiffs argued that searches without a warrant should only be used in "extraordinary circumstances."

North Dakota and Minnesota are two of 11 states that have criminalized a driver’s refusal to take blood alcohol or breath tests. All 50 states allow for drivers who refuse these tests to have their licenses revoked.

In his ruling, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that breath tests could be conducted without a warrant because they didn’t raise “significant privacy concerns,” such as leaving a biological sample in government possession. He also noted that blowing into a machine is “a common practice and one to which few object." Although prosecutors argued it would be too troublesome to obtain a warrant for every refused breath test, some justices pointed out that even police in rural areas can call a magistrate and receive a warrant within minutes.

Six justices agreed with the ruling, but Justice Clarence Thomas felt both blood and breath tests should be legal without a warrant. Meanwhile, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted search warrants for both, noting that “the Fourth Amendment prohibits such searches without a warrant.”

The ruling is especially noteworthy for North Dakota, which was ranked the worst state for drunk driving in a study released last month by North Dakota has both the highest rates of DUI arrests and alcohol-related fatalities in the country, in addition to ranking No. 2 in the nation for cost per fatality.

Last March, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that drivers cannot be criminally prosecuted for refusing a blood alcohol or breath test during an investigation. Previous state law deemed that anyone who drove was giving their implied consent to take a test for blood alcohol content, but the ruling deemed this consent can be withdrawn and a driver can’t be punished criminally for it.

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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.