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The Legality of Warrantless BAC Tests

September 21, 2016 | Posted In Drunk Driving |

Evidence from blood alcohol concentration (BAC) tests is some of the most important evidence prosecutors have when trying to convict drunk driving defendants. In recent years, law enforcement and state lawmakers have gone to great lengths to try to make sure they have the results of BAC tests.

In one situation, law enforcement claimed they could force blood tests without a warrant because there were exigent circumstances: the body was metabolizing the alcohol and evidence was being destroyed. In Missouri v. McNeely, the Supreme Court said the body's natural metabolizing isn't an exigent circumstance that justifies a warrantless search and the police would need a warrant before forcing a defendant to take a blood test without his consent.  

Unfortunately, 13 states have laws on the books making it a crime to refuse a blood, breath, or urine test in order to assess BAC levels.  In these states, the Supreme Court's ruling that a warrant was required before a forced blood test didn't really matter because defendants were essentially coerced into giving consent to testing -- otherwise they'd be criminally prosecuted if they didn't agree to take a test.

These criminal laws were challenged and the Supreme Court agreed to make a ruling on three consolidated cases in the case of Birchfield v. North Dakota.  The court's decision in this case will have a major impact on the rights of drunk driving defendants. Those accused of impaired driving need to understand how the Constitution protects them and they should seek help from a New Jersey DWI lawyer to ensure that any evidence obtained in violation of their rights is not admitted against them.

Supreme Court Rules on Warrantless Blood Tests

In the three cases consolidated as Birchfield v. North Dakota, each driver had been arrested for impaired driving and threatened with prosecution (or prosecuted) for refusing either a blood test or a breath test, even though the police did not have a warrant to compel either type of test.

In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that police can require drunk driving defendants to submit to a warrantless breath test and states can require drivers who are arrested for impaired driving to submit to a warrantless breath test.  A warrantless breath test can be administered as a “search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving,” and warrants are not needed for reasonable searches like those that are conducted during the arrest process.

For blood tests, however, a warrant is required before the police or states can mandate that a driver submit to testing. This distinction is drawn because blood tests are much more invasive and, in most situations, the less-invasive breath test option is sufficient to serve the interest of law enforcement.

If you are arrested or stopped and the police collect any evidence from you in violation of your rights, the prosecutor should not be able to use the collected evidence at trial. Such evidence should not be considered by a jury in determining guilt.

A DWI attorney at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, P.A. can provide you with assistance in fighting to have evidence kept from being presented against you.  Contact an attorney as soon as possible after a drunk driving arrest to find out more about how your lawyer can help you protect your constitutional rights.

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