Release Date:  June 23, 2016
Contact:  Kymberlee Stapleton
(916) 446-0345

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Laws in every state that require suspected drunk drivers to consent to a breath test were protected by a 6-2 U. S. Supreme Court decision announced today. Earlier this year, the high court agreed to review three drunk driving cases involving motorists’ challenges to North Dakota’s and Minnesota’s implied consent laws. These laws allowed the state to impose criminal penalties upon a lawfully arrested driver who refused to submit to a breath, blood, or urine test to determine the presence of intoxicants. At issue in the cases of Birchfield v. North Dakota, Bernard v. Minnesota, and Beylund v. Levi was whether these laws violated motorists’ Fourth Amendment rights by forcing them to consent to warrantless searches.

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation had joined the Beylund case to argue that an earlier North Dakota Supreme Court decision, which rejected the challenge and upheld the law, was correct and should be affirmed. Implied consent is a legal tool utilized by all 50 states to obtain evidence of blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”) levels of arrested motorists. The high court upheld the law as applied to breath tests, but it required a search warrant before compelling a blood test.

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion authored by Associate Justice Samuel Alito stated, “Having assessed the effect of [blood alcohol concentration] tests on privacy interests and the need for such tests, we conclude that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving. The impact of breath tests on privacy is slight, and the need for BAC testing is great.”

The first case was that of Danny Birchfield, whose preliminary breath screening showed a BAC of 0.254%, more than three times the legal limit. He refused a blood test and was convicted of a misdemeanor for refusing. In the second case, the defendant, William Bernard, was a four-time recidivist drunk driver arrested with alcohol on his breath and bloodshot eyes. He refused a breath test and was convicted for refusal. The third case involved the driver’s license suspension of Steve Beylund. He consented to a blood test after being advised of the penalty for refusal, and the test showed a BAC of 0.250%, over three times the legal limit. His license was suspended for two years.

When the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to consider the three appeals, CJLF joined the Beylund case.

In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton argued that the license to operate a motor vehicle is a privilege granted by the state, conditioned upon the driver’s agreement to consent to testing for the presence of intoxicants. Each year, thousands of Americans suffer death, injury, and destruction by drunk drivers.

There is a strong interest by the state in protecting innocent people from bodily harm caused by the dangerous choice others make to drive under the influence. The implied consent laws in every state were enacted to balance the safety of motorists who are obeying the law with the rights of those who are allegedly committing the crime of driving while intoxicated. Today’s decision gives the state a strong method to compel compliance with breath testing. In addition, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the long-established practices of imposing civil penalties or suspending a driver’s license for refusal of blood testing are not affected by today’s decision.

“Today’s decision recognizes that the public’s interest in protecting innocent people and keeping intoxicated motorists off of the roadways is significant in comparison to the privacy interests of a lawfully arrested motorist who made the choice to drink and drive,” says Stapleton. “The Court’s decision to uphold the criminal refusal penalties for motorists who refuse to take a breath test also recognizes that the state-granted privilege of operating a motor vehicle must respect the fundamental rights of others to be free from bodily harm.”

CJLF Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton is available for comment at (916) 446-0345.
The Beylund v. Levi brief is available on our website at: