Supreme Court tackles whether DUI tests are constitutional

This article looks at a recent Supreme Court decision concerning the constitutionality of alcohol tests.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court case is having major repercussions on the DUI laws of states across the country. The country's top court was tasked with determining whether warrantless DUI tests, such as breath and blood tests, are constitutional. As CBS News reports, the court delivered a mixed and controversial verdict, ruling that while a warrantless breath test is constitutional, a warrantless blood withdrawal is not. While the case has clarified a number of issues concerning the constitutionality of such tests, it has also raised some difficult questions as well.

Is refusal a crime?

Most states have DUI test refusal laws by which motorists who refuse to submit to a breath or blood test face some sort of penalty. Those penalties are often administrative in nature, such as a license suspension, and do not typically result in a criminal charge. Because those penalties have generally been administrative and not criminal, they have largely been allowed to stand by the courts under implied consent laws.

In recent years, however, a number of states have tried to make the refusal to submit to a warrantless blood-alcohol test a criminal offense. In the Supreme Court case, which centered on laws in North Dakota and Minnesota, the issue at hand was whether charging somebody with a crime for refusing to submit to either a warrantless blood or breath test was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

A split ruling

The Supreme Court seemed to try to walk a middle ground in its verdict. As Bloomberg reports, the court ruled that criminalizing the refusal to submit to a warrantless blood withdrawal is indeed unconstitutional. However, the court also ruled that criminalizing the refusal to submit to a breath test is constitutional.

The court argued that because blood tests are more invasive than breath tests and because they require the government to store a biological sample of the person's blood that they are a violation of the Fourth Amendment if carried out without a warrant. Breath tests, the court reasoned, were inherently far less invasive and therefore did not require a warrant. The ruling has proven controversial and it does not settle all issues around the constitutionality of warrantless blood-alcohol tests. The question, for example, of whether warrantless urine tests for alcohol are constitutional was not addressed by the top court.

Criminal defense

Being charged with DUI can be a frightening experience and one that could lead to the loss of one's license and a criminal record. With the stakes so high, it is important that anybody facing such charges get legal help right away. An experienced criminal defense attorney can help clients understand what legal options they have and how best to maintain their rights and freedoms when up against such serious charges.