The Supreme Court has issued a split decision on three different driving while intoxicated cases. The question presented to the court was whether it violated the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirement for states to charge someone with an additional crime, if after being arrested for DUI or DWI the person refused a breath test. In at least a dozen states around the country, the Supreme Court ruled they could continue the practice of tacking on additional charges. How does this affect Texas drivers? It really doesn’t.
Texas law says that if you are arrested for driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence (only applicable to minors), and you refuse to provide a breath specimen to determine your blood alcohol concentration, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) can suspend your privilege to drive for a period of at least 180 days. DPS handles this procedure through an administrative hearing, if one is requested. Although losing your license can cause a lot of headaches, refusing to blow in Texas will not result in another criminal case like it does elsewhere. For example, in Hawaii it is a petty misdemeanor to refuse a breath test that is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
Justice Alito, writing the majority opinion, said that breath tests do not implicate “significant privacy concerns,” which would trigger the requirement for a warrant. He went on to say that breath tests do not require the piercing of skin that leaves a person’s biological sample in the hands of the government. In contrast, the court further ruled that a warrant will be required for the government to force you take a blood test under the similar circumstances. This ruling further strengthens previous decisions that forced Texas law enforcement to change their procedures for obtaining blood. Now Harris County, and others surrounding the Houston area, have magistrates on call 24-7 to issue warrants for officers in the field to take blood.
With three different cases wrapped into one Supreme Court decision, each defendant had a different result. One who was prosecuted in North Dakota and refused a blood test felt he should have his conviction overturned; another who was prosecuted in Minnesota for refusing a blood test had his conviction upheld; and another who consented to a blood test in North Dakota after being threatened with prosecution had his case sent back to a lower court in light of this decision.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Elena Kagan, Anthony Kennedy, and Stephen Breyer all joined Justice Alito’s opinion. Dissenting were Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who stated that warrants should be required in both types of cases. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote only a partial dissent, stating that warrants should not be required in any case.
The 4th Amendment was written to keep us safe from government officials intruding into our lives without some oversight. Unfortunately, Supreme Court opinions such as this continue to erode our constitutional guarantees.
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