Evidence of a driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is a critical tool for prosecutors in driving while intoxicated (DWI) cases. Under the New Jersey DWI statute, a driver with a BAC of at least 0.08 percent is presumed to be impaired. BAC evidence can come from tests on a sample of a driver’s breath or blood. Because of the importance of BAC evidence in DWI cases, New Jersey makes it a separate traffic offense to refuse to submit a breath sample, punishable with a fine and license suspension. Some states make refusal a criminal offense, meaning that it could result in jail time, and require submission to both breath and blood testing. The U.S. Supreme Court considered a Fourth Amendment challenge to criminal refusal statutes last year. Although New Jersey’s refusal statute does not impose criminal penalties or require blood testing, the court’s ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota is important for DWI defendants all over the country.
Anyone who drives on public roads in New Jersey has, according to state law, given their implied consent to breath testing in a DWI investigation. This allows the state to charge anyone who refuses to submit a breath sample with a traffic offense. New Jersey law does not require drivers to submit to blood testing, however, unless police obtain a warrant. The defendants in Birchfield challenged statutes in Minnesota and North Dakota that impose criminal penalties for refusal. The North Dakota law included both breath and blood samples.
The Fourth Amendment generally prohibits “searches and seizures” without a warrant supported by probable cause to believe that a search will yield evidence or contraband. Numerous courts have held that breath and blood testing are “searches” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Courts have also recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, however. The “search incident to arrest” exception, for example, allows police to search a person during an arrest. Police may also claim that “exigent circumstances,” such as the imminent destruction of evidence, made waiting to obtain a warrant impractical.