Supreme Court Debates Constitutionality of States’ Drunk Driving Laws

Is it a violation of people’s constitutional rights to arrest them for refusing to take a Breathalyzer test without a warrant? That’s a question currently before the Supreme Court. While listening to recent arguments presented in the case, a number of the justices appeared conflicted on the subject.


lawyerStates: Warrants Can Be Difficult to Obtain

The three cases being considered by the court were brought by plaintiffs arrested in North Dakota and Minnesota for refusing to take breath tests. In these states, it’s illegal to refuse a “deep-lung” test administered to drivers suspected of drunk driving. Further, officers aren’t required to get a warrant to administer the test. There are similar laws in 11 other states. The North Dakota and Minnesota laws were upheld in federal district and appeals court before attorneys went to the Supreme Court.


One argument for not requiring a warrant, as is needed for blood and urine tests to measure blood-alcohol content, is that in rural areas, it can be difficult to obtain one in a timely manner, particularly at night. Further, they argue that a breath test doesn’t qualify as an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.


Justices Noted Validity of Both Sides

Several justices seemed to favor a requirement for warrants. Justice Anthony Kennedy said to the attorneys arguing for the government, “You’re asking for us to make it a crime to exercise what many people think of as a constitutional right.” Chief Justice John Roberts noted that warrants are required for cellphone searches even though there may well be “at least as many accidents caused by people texting while driving as drinking while driving.”


Gavel, books and handcuffs on wooden table

Gavel, books and handcuffs on wooden table

Three justices made points indicating that they may be leaning towards the states’ position. Justice Samuel Alito asserted that people don’t want to submit to a Breathalyzer not because they object to “blowing into a little straw,” but because “they don’t want their blood alcohol measured.” Justice Stephen Breyer asserted that Breathalyzers “can save a lot of lives” and are only used where police have “at least reasonable suspicion” that someone is driving drunk.


It’s essential to know your rights under your state’s laws if you are pulled over for suspicion of DUI. If you are charged, an experienced criminal defense attorney can provide valuable guidance and work to protect your rights.