U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Warrantless Breath and Blood Tests in DWI Cases

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.

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Schmerber v. California that a blood draw by police, with neither a warrant nor the defendant’s consent, did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The court significantly narrowed this ruling, however, in Missouri v. McNeely in 2013, when it held that police could not claim the “exigent circumstances” exception for a warrantless blood draw solely because the human body breaks down alcohol over time.

The Birchfield case combined two cases from North Dakota and one from Minnesota. The North Dakota defendants challenged the state’s implied consent and criminal refusal statutes for blood draws. The Minnesota defendant challenged a criminal refusal statute for breath testing.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the North Dakota defendants, finding that a law requiring submission to blood testing was unconstitutional. It ruled against the Minnesota defendant, though, in part because breath testing is far less intrusive than a blood draw. States can therefore require DWI suspects to submit breath samples, but they either need a warrant or a better justification than the one presented in McNeely to collect a blood sample without a warrant.

If you are facing charges of alleged DWI in a New Jersey court, DWI attorney Evan Levow can help you understand your rights and guide you through the court process. Contact us today online or at (877) 593-1717 to schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our team.

More Blog Posts:

New Jersey Appellate Court Considers Warrantless Blood Draw and Credibility Questions in DWI Case, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, November 14, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court to Rule on Constitutionality of Criminal Refusal Statutes, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, May 25, 2016

City Faces Massive Backlog of Untested Blood Samples, Potentially Delaying DWI Prosecutions, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, October 26, 2015

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