Supreme Court Hears Local Breathalyzer Refusal Case

When a person is pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, the common practice is for an officer to ask the driver to submit to a breathalyzer blood-alcohol test. While other sobriety tests such as field coordination examinations and direct syringe extraction of blood for medical testing are available, most often the breathalyzer test is relied upon to determine intoxication.

Drivers in Missouri, indeed in all 50 states, have the right to refuse a breathalyzer test after being pulled over, unless an officer has obtained a warrant for the test’s use. Usually this refusal results in an automatic suspension of drivers’ licenses.

However, in some cases, officers might ignore both a driver’s requests and the absence of a warrant, moving forward with breath and/or blood tests at their own discretion. Just such a case, stemming from an October 2010 DUI investigation, has now made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pulled over by a Missouri patrolman on Oct. 3, 2010, a Cape Girardeau man refused to submit to a breathalyzer test, but was taken by an officer to a nearby hospital and given a direct, needle-based blood test anyway. The results were clear: the man’s blood-alcohol level sat at .154 percent-well above the legal limit of .08.

A local judge initially threw out the hospital’s test result on account of the lack of a warrant, but appeals and contestations have brought the matter all the way to the highest court in the land. An attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union, who has come to the support of the Missouri defendant, has stressed drivers’ Fourth Amendment right to not be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures.

Justice Sotomayor made note of the difficult precedent that may be set by a ruling that allows breathalyzer testing despite a driver’s refusal and the absence of a warrant, noting that such approval could quickly be extended to syringe tests-a highly invasive search.

The outcome of this Supreme Court will have far-reaching implications for all DUI and DWI defendants, both in Missouri and across the country. When the complicated legal questions of warrants, consent, and constitutional rights come into play, the heightened insight of a drunk driving defense attorney can help guide a defendant to the most favorable outcome.

Source: St. Louis Beacon, “Supreme Court hears arguments in issouri case involving warrantless blood test,” Robert Koenig, Jan. 9, 2013

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