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June 23, 2016

Stressing harms of drunk driving, SCOTUS upholds warrantless breath tests (but not warrantless blood tests) incident to arrest

The Supreme Court handed down its last big Fourth Amendment decision of this Term, and Birchfield v. North Dakota, No. 14–1468 (S. Ct. June 23, 2016) (available here), is a nuanced ruling that I am glad to see makes much of the scourage of drunk driving. Here is the start of the Birchfield opinion for the Court authored by Justice Alito, as well as two key summary paragraphs from deep into the opinion:

Drunk drivers take a grisly toll on the Nation’s roads, claiming thousands of lives, injuring many more victims, and inflicting billions of dollars in property damage every year.  To fight this problem, all States have laws that prohibit motorists from driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that exceeds a specified level.  But determining whether a driver’s BAC is over the legal limit requires a test, and many drivers stopped on suspicion of drunk driving would not submit to testing if given the option. So every State also has long had what are termed “implied consent laws.” These laws impose penalties on motorists who refuse to undergo testing when there is sufficient reason to believe they are violating the State’s drunk-driving laws.

In the past, the typical penalty for noncompliance was suspension or revocation of the motorist’s license.  The cases now before us involve laws that go beyond that and make it a crime for a motorist to refuse to be tested after being lawfully arrested for driving while impaired.  The question presented is whether such laws violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches....

Having assessed the effect of BAC tests on privacy interests and the need for such tests, we conclude that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving.  The impact of breath tests on privacy is slight, and the need for BAC testing is great.

We reach a different conclusion with respect to blood tests.  Blood tests 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.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Kagan joined Justice Alito's opinion for the Court.  Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Thomas also filed his own opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

June 23, 2016 at 10:48 AM | Permalink

Comments

Sometimes I cannot figure out which amendment the court seems intent on destroying the most: the first or the fourth. Alito's opinion is so ludicrous from start to finish I don't even know where to being to criticize it. "The impact of breath tests on privacy is slight..." says the man who is in no danger of ever having his breath tested for anything other than malice.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 23, 2016 1:10:08 PM

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