Supreme Court Determines What Chemical Tests Require A Warrant

Posted by Richard Lawson | Jan 19, 2017 | 0 Comments

In June 2016, the United States Supreme Court handed down a ruling in a trio of cases on the issue of warrantless chemical tests used to measure a driver's blood-alcohol content (BAC). These cases were consolidated and heard together by the high court. Two of the cases were from North Dakota -- Birchfield v. North Dakota and Beylund v. Levi -- and one was from Minnesota -- Bernard v. Minnesota. In these two states, as well as others, it is a crime to refuse to take a chemical test. The defendants in each of these three cases were arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. In Birchfield and Bernard, the defendant refused to take a blood test and breath test, respectively. Each was charged with a criminal offense for that refusal. In Beylund, by contrast, the defendant agreed to take a blood test so as to avoid a criminal penalty. The Supreme Court granted certiorari "in order to decide whether motorists lawfully arrested for drunk driving may be convicted of a crime or otherwise penalized for refusing to take a warrantless test measuring the alcohol in their bloodstream."

The court began it's analysis by stating "success for all three petitioners depends on the proposition that the criminal law ordinarily may not compel a motorist to submit to the taking of a blood sample or to a breath test unless a warrant authorizing such testing is issued by a magistrate." By contrast, if the searches are consistent with the Fourth Amendment, then the state can impose criminal penalties and "there is no obstacle under federal law to the admission of the results that they yield in either a criminal prosecution or a civil or administrative proceeding."

In order to determine that the test conformed to the requirements of the Fourth Amendment, the court looked at whether any exceptions applied as generally a warrant is required for a search. The Supreme Court determined that a chemical test fell under the search incident to arrest exception to the Fourth Amendment. This exception permits law enforcement to search a person who has been placed under arrest without first getting a warrant. However, the court did not hold that the exception applied to all kinds of chemical tests.

The court looked at the "impact of breath and blood tests on individual privacy interests" and determined that breath tests were much less invasive than blood tests. The court pointed out that with breath tests "the physical intrusion is almost negligible," while blood tests "'require piercing the skin' and extract[ing] a part of the subject's body." The court held that "[b]ecause breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests and in most cases amply serve law enforcement interests, we conclude that a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving." By categorizing breath tests as a search incident to arrest, a warrant would not be required for this type of test.

The court also determined that a criminal charge was a permissible consequence for refusing a warrantless test, stating "[t]he laws at issue in the present cases—which make it a crime to refuse to submit to a BAC test—are designed to provide an incentive to cooperate in such cases, and we conclude that they serve a very important function." However, the court stated that defendants could not impliedly consent to a blood test, thus a criminal penalty could not be imposed in cases where a defendant refused a warrantless blood test.

The court then applied their ruling to the cases. In Birchfield, the defendant had been prosecuted for refusing a blood test when no warrant was obtained. As such the court reversed his conviction and remanded the case. In Bernard, the defendant refused a breath test, which the court determined does not require a warrant. Thus, the court upheld his conviction for refusing the test. In Beylund, the defendant submitted to a blood test. The court decided to vacate the judgement and then remand his case to determine the voluntariness of his consent as his consent was given to an inaccurate implied consent warning.

If you or a loved one has been charged with driving under the influence in Georgia, please do not hesitate to contact Georgia DUI Attorney Richard Lawson today.

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Richard Lawson

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