The Supreme Court has ruled that states do not have the power to make it a crime for motorists that are suspected of drunk driving to refuse blood alcohol tests. The ruling states that police must obtain a search warrant before requiring drivers to take blood alchohol tests – but not the less intrusive breath tests.
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.
There were five justices who ruled in the majority, and Samuel Alito wrote that breath tests do not implicate “significant privacy concerns”. Unlike blood tests, breathing into a breathalyzer does not pierce the skin or leave any biological samples in the government’s possession.
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.
The states argued that the testing laws are a legitimate condition that comes with the privilege of using state roads and highways. State prosecutors main argument that it was not feasible, and quite burdensome, for police to obtain a search warrant every time a driver refused a test. This applies especially to rural areas where there is most likely only one judge on call nights and weekends to obtain the warrant.
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.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving supported the states’ argument, but it was not enough for the Justices to side in their favor.