In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently set new rules for testing motorists suspected of DUI, ruling that the Fourth Amendment allows warrantless breath tests but requires police to get a search warrant for blood tests.
“The impact of breath tests on privacy is slight, and the need for BAC testing is great,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the Court in Birchfield v. North Dakota and its consolidated cases. “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.”
The decision arises from three cases from lower courts in the Midwest. All of them involved state laws criminalizing the refusal of blood and breath BAC tests.
Justice Alito analyzed the tests under the Fourth Amendment’s search-incident-to-arrest exception. This exception to the warrant requirement allows police officers to search a person’s body and immediate surroundings without warrant after their lawful arrest. “Breath BAC tests,” he wrote, “don’t rise to the level of intrusiveness the Fourth Amendment protects: they leave no permanent sample in the government’s possession and don’t undermine the arrestee’s dignity in any significant way.”
But the justices in the majority of the 7-1 decision refused to apply that logic to blood BAC tests, citing both the greater intrusiveness of obtaining blood and the wealth of other information that can be obtained from it. “It is another matter, however, for a State not only to insist upon an intrusive blood test, but also to impose criminal penalties on the refusal to submit to such a test,” Justice Alito wrote. “There must be a limit to the consequences to which motorists may be deemed to have consented by virtue of a decision to drive on public roads.”
This development in the law will change how DUI is prosecuted in Pennsylvania and can create a new defense to some cases now pending in the courts. The breadth of the decision remains to be seen in coming months. If you or someone you know was recently charged with DUI following a breath or blood test, call the Pennsylvania DUI lawyers at Purchase, George & Murphey, P.C., P.C. at (814) 835-0400 to discuss how this change in the law might affect you and your case.