U.S. Supreme Court Limits Drunk Driving Test Laws

Police must obtain a search warrant before requiring drivers to submit to blood tests, the court ruled June 23.

The U.S. Supreme Court has placed new limits on state laws that make it a crime for a driver suspected of drunk driving to refuse alcohol tests. Now, police must obtain a search warrant before requiring drivers to take blood alcohol tests, but not breath tests, the high court ruled in a 7-1 case on June 23.

The ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota, No. 14-1468, came in three cases where drivers challenged implied consent laws in Minnesota and North Dakota. The state supreme courts upheld those laws. Justice Samuel Alito, writing the majority opinion, wrote that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving but not warrantless blood tests, adding that breath tests do not implicate "significant privacy concerns."

"Because the impact of breath tests on privacy is slight, and the need for BAC testing is great, the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving. Blood tests, however, are significantly more intrusive, and their reasonableness must be judged in light of the availability of the less invasive alternative of a breath test," he wrote.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a separate opinion, said they would have required search warrants for both breath and blood alcohol tests, while Justice Clarence Thomas argued in his opinion that both searches should be held to be constitutional under the exigent circumstances exception to the warrant requirement.

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