High court strikes limits drunk driving test laws

AP News
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Posted: Jun 23, 2016 10:34 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Thursday placed new limits on state laws that make it a crime for motorists suspected of drunken driving to refuse alcohol tests.

The justices ruled that police must obtain a search warrant before requiring drivers to take blood alcohol tests, but not breath tests, which the court considers less intrusive.

The ruling came in three cases in which drivers challenged so-called implied consent laws in Minnesota and North Dakota as violating the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. State supreme courts in each state had upheld the laws.

Drivers in all 50 states can have their licenses revoked for refusing drunken driving tests. The court's ruling affects laws in eleven states that impose additional criminal penalties for such refusals.

Writing for five justices in the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said breath tests do not implicate "significant privacy concerns." Unlike blood tests, Alito said breathing into a breathalyzer doesn't pierce the skin or leave a biological sample in the government's possession.

Other states that criminalize a driver's refusal to take alcohol blood or breath tests include Alaska, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

In all three cases before the high court, the challengers argued that warrantless searches should be allowed only in "extraordinary circumstances." They said routine drunk driving stops count as ordinary law enforcement functions where traditional privacy rights should apply.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said they would have gone further and required search warrants for both breath and blood alcohol tests. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, saying he would have found both tests constitutional.

State officials called the testing laws a legitimate condition on the privilege of using state roads. State prosecutors argued that it was too burdensome for police to obtain a warrant every time a driver refused a test because some rural areas have only one judge on call late at night or on weekends. They also expressed concern that even if police get a warrant, a driver can still refuse to take an alcohol test and face lesser charges for obstruction.

During oral argument, some of the justices pointed out that even in rural states police can call a magistrate and get a warrant over the phone in just a few minutes.

The states garnered support from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which argued that public safety is a compelling reason that justified the laws. But civil liberties groups said states can't criminalize the assertion of a constitutional right.