Teen Takes Cop to Court Over Warrantless Breathalyzer Test

By Victoria Kim 06/27/16

The 17-year-old was fined $100 for refusing a breathalyzer test.

Teen Takes Cop to Court Over Warrantless Breathalyzer Test

One Michigan police officer may have messed with the wrong 17-year-old. Last Monday, Sgt. Kenneth Pelland of the Grosse Ile Police Department was hit with a federal lawsuit filed by a high school senior who argues that Pelland’s right under a township ordinance and state law to request a minor to submit to a breathalyzer test with no search warrant is unconstitutional.

In May, Casey Guthrie, a senior and honors student at Grosse Ile High School, was riding in a car with friends when they were pulled over by Pelland, who requested a breathalyzer test from everyone in the group. When Guthrie refused, Pelland gave her a $100 citation.

Under Michigan law, a police officer who has reasonable cause to believe a minor has consumed alcohol may require the individual to submit to a breathalyzer test. Refusing to do so is a civil infraction punishable by a $100 fine. 

Guthrie is challenging the state law and a similar town ordinance, saying police should procure a search warrant before they can request a breathalyzer test from a minor. 

“Her rights were violated when she was forced to submit to breathalyzer to prove her innocence,” Guthrie’s lawyer Mike Rataj told NBC News. “That is not how the criminal justice system works. This is a girl who has never been in trouble before and has no criminal history.” Rataj said the law violated Guthrie’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.

“In a free country, the police should not be able to conduct invasive searches without a judge first issuing a warrant saying there is probable cause that the search will reveal evidence of unlawful behavior,” Michael Steinberg, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, told The Fix in an email. 

“The warrant requirement serves as a check on police abuse and distinguishes the United States from other countries where the police have no limits on what they can do,” said Steinberg.

According to township supervisor Brian Loftus, Pelland runs the police department’s DARE program and works with the local drug court program.

Over the last decade, Michigan judges have struck down warrantless breathalyzer tests three times. The ACLU of Michigan has represented the young plaintiffs in these cases, and is currently reviewing whether to get involved in Guthrie's case, Steinberg told The Fix.

On Thursday (June 23), the U.S. Supreme Court made another Fourth Amendment ruling, deciding that police must obtain a search warrant before requiring drivers to take blood alcohol tests, but not breath tests. 

This came after the high court ruled the previous Monday that evidence found in illegal stops can be used in court. In the words of dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor, police now have precedent to “stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants—even if you are doing nothing wrong.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr