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Birchfield v. North Dakota

Justia Summary

Every state has a law that prohibits motorists from driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeding a specified level. BAC is typically determined by analysis of a blood sample or by using a machine to measure the amount of alcohol in a person’s breath. Implied consent laws require drivers to submit to BAC tests. Originally, the penalty for refusing a test was suspension of the motorist’s license. Some states, including North Dakota and Minnesota, now make it a crime to refuse to undergo testing. In consolidated cases, involving defendants prosecuted under such laws, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving but not warrantless blood tests. Breath tests do not implicate significant privacy concerns and are no more intrusive than collecting a DNA sample by rubbing a swab on the inside of a person’s cheek; they leave no biological sample in the government’s possession and are not likely to enhance the embarrassment inherent in any arrest. Blood tests, however, require piercing the skin and extract a part of the subject’s body, giving law enforcement a sample from which it is possible to extract information beyond a BAC reading. By making it a crime to refuse to submit to a BAC test, the laws at issue provide an incentive to cooperate and serve a very important function. Imposing a warrant requirement for every BAC test would likely swamp courts, with little corresponding benefit. The states have no satisfactory justification for demanding the more-intrusive alternative without a warrant. In instances where blood tests might be preferable—e.g., where substances other than alcohol impair the driver’s abilities, or where the subject is unconscious—nothing prevents the police from seeking a warrant or from relying on the exigent circumstances exception, if applicable.

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