Supreme Court to Consider Right to Refuse Blood-Alcohol Tests Without Warrant
High court to determine if states make it a crime for drunk-driving suspects to reject tests
By Jess Bravin
Dec. 11, 2015
The Supreme Court said Friday it would weigh whether states can make it a crime for drunk-driving suspects to refuse to take blood-alcohol tests when police haven’t secured a warrant.
The court took cases from Minnesota and ?North Dakota which, along with 11 other states, have “implied consent” laws that require motorists to submit to blood, breath or urine tests if a police officer believes they are intoxicated.
In one of the cases, police in South St. Paul, Minn. found three apparently drunk men at a boat launch with a truck that was stuck while attempting to get a boat out of the water.
The driver, William Robert Bernard, had stripped to his underwear and smelled of alcohol. He refused to take field sobriety tests or, later at the police station, a breath test, according to a state court opinion.
He was charged with “first-degree test refusal.”
Mr. Bernard, who had four prior impaired driving convictions, challenged the statute as violating his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.
The Supreme Court has held that police, in general, must obtain a warrant to search a suspect, but there are exceptions. One is a “search incident to arrest,” which the court has justified as necessary to preserve evidence or protect an officer from hidden weapons.
The justices in 2013 held police couldn’t routinely conduct alcohol blood tests without getting a warrant, rejecting prosecutors’ argument that any potential delay in obtaining a judge’s approval allowed evidence-alcohol in the bloodstream-to dissipate.
“In those drunk-driving investigations where police officers can reasonably obtain a warrant before a blood sample can be drawn without significantly undermining the efficacy of the search, the Fourth Amendment mandates that they do so,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote then for the court.
Lawyers for Mr. Bernard and other men claim the supreme courts of Minnesota and North Dakota, which upheld state laws making it a crime to refuse alcohol tests, have disregarded constitutional precedent.
Separately, the Supreme Court said it would clarify when landowners can sue to overturn a determination by the Army Corps of Engineers that their property includes wetlands. Under the Clean Water Act, such a designation can require the landowner to undertake a costly permitting application before developing the property.
The Corps had issued a “jurisdictional determination” that a property in northwestern Minnesota included wetlands. A company that wanted to mine peat on the property, Hawkes Co., sued to invalidate that determination, and the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis agreed that case could proceed.
Two other federal appeals courts, however, have reached contrary findings, concluding landowners must go through the permitting process before their claims can be brought to federal court. The Supreme Court will resolve the difference.
The court also agreed to review whether Ohio’s system of collecting state debts violates the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
Ohio assigns collection of state debts to the state attorney general. In some instances, the attorney general designates private lawyers as “special counsel,” who are authorized to collect the debt and are paid out the funds they recover.
Special counsel can use the state attorney general’s letterhead in attempting to collect the debt, a practice plaintiffs with state university and hospital bills say is misleading, because the private lawyers are not officers of the state.
The cases are expected to be argued in the spring and decided by June.