The United States Supreme Court upheld Minnesota’s Implied Consent law, which states that it’s a crime to refuse to submit to a warrantless breath test if a cop believes a person is driving under the influence of alcohol.
Despite the fact that it seems to go against some of the protections guaranteed by the 4th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that citizens are protected against unreasonable and warrantless searches and seizures, the Supreme Court justices stated that they did not believe it was problematic to criminalize refusal of a warrantless breath test. They did however state that individuals cannot be penalized for refusing to comply to a warrantless blood draw, as that is more intrusive than a breath test. Here’s part of their ruling.
“Because the impact of breath tests on privacy is slight, and the need for BAC testing is great, the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving. Blood tests, however, are significantly more intrusive, and their reasonableness must be judged in light of the availability of the less invasive alternative of a breath test. Respondents have offered no satisfactory justification for demanding the more intrusive alternative without a warrant. In instances where blood tests might be preferable—e.g., where substances other than alcohol impair the driver’s ability to operate a car safely, or where the subject is unconscious—nothing prevents the police from seeking a warrant or from relying on the exigent circumstances exception if it applies. Because breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests and in must cases amply serve law enforcement interests, a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving. No warrant is needed in this situation.”
Crime For Refusing
It seems harsh that refusing to acquiesce to a warrantless demand for a breath test will be met with criminal charges, and Justice Samuel Alito explained to critics why he feels refusal needs to be met with a harsh punishment.
“If the penalty for driving with a greatly elevated BAC or for repeat violations exceeds the penalty for refusing to submit to testing, motorists who fear conviction for the more severely punished offenses have an incentive to reject testing. And in some States, the refusal rate is high. On average, over one-fifth of all drivers asked to submit to BAC testing in 2011 refused to do so,” he said.
Alito noted that Minnesota’s high punishments under the state’s Implied Consent law are why the state’s current refusal rate sits at about 12 percent, half the rate reported in 1988, the last year before the refusal law went into effect. The justice was unmoved by the argument that a breath test is intrusive, likening the test to drinking out of a straw.
“The use of a straw to drink beverages is a common practice and one to which few object,” he wrote.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a dissenting opinion, stating that based on the case presented, Minnesota authorities typically have plenty of time throughout the arrest process to obtain a warrant. Here is her opinion, with the legal statutes referenced removed to enhance the readability of the text.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has explained that nearly all breath tests involve a time lag of 45 minutes to two hours. Both North Dakota and Minnesota give police a 2-hour period from the time the motorist was pulled over within which to administer a breath test. During this built-in window, police can seek warrants. That is particularly true in light of “advances” in technology that now permit the more expeditious processing of warrant applications.”
She also lambasted Alito who noted the warrant requirement would place an undue burden on judges, countering that judges would, on average, need to issue one more warrant a week to keep up with demand. But even better, she said what we have been arguing all along, that convenience shouldn’t outweigh the constitutional rights of the public.
“This Court has never said that mere convenience in gathering evidence justifies an exception to the warrant requirement,” she wrote.
Click here for the full text of today’s decision.