OVI Convictions for Refusing to Submit to Blood Tests Are Unconstitutional - DUI News - 7/23/2016

The Supreme Court holds that OVI convictions for refusing to submit to blood tests are unconstitutional, but similar convictions for refusing to submit to breath tests are ok.

Birchfield v. North Dakota, 579 U.S. ___ (June 23, 2016)


June 23, 2016

After oral arguments held on April 20, 2106, the United States Supreme issued a decision regarding three DUI cases related to refusals.  In Birchfield v. North Dakota, Birchfield was convicted of a DUI refusal when he refused to submit to a blood test.  In Bernard v.  Minnesota, Bernard was convicted of a DUI refusal when he refused to submit to a breath test.  In Beylund v. North Dakota, Beylund was taken to a hospital, told that a refusal was a crime, and therefore submitted to a blood test that gave over the limit results.

The Supreme Court reasoned that such tests are searches governed by the Fourth Amendment; however, went further to review whether such tests fell within the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement.  To do so, the Court evaluated the degree to which they intrude upon an individual's privacy and the degree to which they are needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests.

With regard to breath tests, the Court followed a prior decision that held breath tests "do not implicate significant privacy concerns."  It also concluded that the physical intrusion is almost negligible, and less than other intrusions that it has held were acceptable such as DNA tests and scraping underneath suspects' fingernails.After also concluding that, "participation in a breath test is not an experience that is likely to cause any great enhancement in the embarrassment that is inherent in any arrest," the Court confirmed that a breath test does not implicate sigiicant privacy concerns.

Blood tests, on the other hand, were held to be significantly more intrusive that a breath test.  Additionally, a blood test "places in the hands of law enforcement authorities a sample that can be preserved and from which it is possible to extract information beyond a simple BAC reading."

As a result, the Court held that we conclude that "a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving." Furthermore, in response to an argument that the implied consent theory allowed blood tests, the Supreme Court reasoned that, "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."  As a result, "we conclude that motorists cannot be deemed to have consented to submit to a blood test on pain of committing a criminal offense."

As a result, the Court reversed Birchfield's conviction for refusing to submit to a warrantless blood draw.  On the other hand, it concluded that Bernard had no right to refuse the breath test.  The Court remanded Beylund's case to reevaluate whether his consent to a blood test was voluntary given its holding that the he was erroneously instructed that the State could compel a blood and breath test.

The following points might be drawn from this case:

  • Breath tests do not require warrants, but blood tests do absent exigent circumstances (dissipation of alcohol is not enough of an exigent circumstance without a case by case analysis)
  • Criminal convictions for refusing to submit to blood tests are unconstitutional
  • Criminal convictions for refusing to submit to breath tests are constitutional.
  • Urine tests are not addressed, but there is prior case law that says they raise the same privacy concerns as blood tests as opposed to insignificant concerns for breath tests.
  • Convictions as a result of consenting to a blood test after being threatened that the police can force the test must be evaluated for whether the consent was voluntary.
  • Civil penalties and suspensions are not affected.