By Shawn Sukumar, a DUI and criminal attorney in Washington, DC who practices in DC and federal court.
Last week, the Supreme Court imposed limits on some state laws that criminalize motorists suspected of impaired driving from refusing certain blood alcohol tests.
In what came down to three major decisions, the Court ruled that: 1) police officers must obtain a search warrant before requiring suspected motorists of taking a blood alcohol test, 2) police officers do not need a search warrant for a breath alcohol test, and 3) that states which impose criminal penalties on motorists who refuse blood alcohol tests are in violation of the Constitution.
There are 12 states which impose criminal penalties on drivers who refuse to take a breath alcohol test. While North Dakota and Minnesota were the two states in question at the hearing, Virginia and neighboring Tennessee also have these same types of laws.
In last Thursday’s decision, the Supreme Court gave a nod of approval to these laws, stating that there was “implied consent” when on government roads.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito stated breath alcohol tests don’t raise “significant privacy concerns,” as there is no piercing of the skin and no biological sample left with the government. On a day in which the Supreme Court deadlocked twice, it was a surprise in itself to see such an overwhelming decision.
Justice Clarence Thomas went even further, writing his own opinion, in which he stated he would have found both the breath and blood alcohol tests fine without a search warrant.
”The Fourth Amendment prohibits such searches without a warrant, unless exigent circumstances exist in a particular case,” stated Justice Sonia Sotomayor, along with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as lone voices of reason in their dissent from the Court’s decision.
They argued that no government function or entity makes it impractical for officers to obtain a search warrant. Stating that it would take no more than a few minutes to get either a late night judge or magistrate on the phone for the warrant, even in rural localities.
The advocacy group MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, hailed the decision as a victory and hoped that other states would soon join in implementing these criminal penalties. Many privacy groups, who sided with Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg, saw it as a blow to the privacy and respect of Americans and their Constitutional rights.