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The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in three cases on the constitutionality of punishing suspected drunk drivers for refusing to submit to breath or blood alcohol testing when stopped by police. The three cases are Birchfield v. North Dakota, Bernard v. Minnesota, and Beylund v. North Dakota, which will be consolidated and heard together.

Implied Consent and No Refusal

All 50 states have some form of “implied consent” or “no refusal” laws for motorists, which impose penalties on drivers who refuse to undergo sobriety testing during a DUI arrest or stop. The most common consequence is an automatic license suspension, but 13 states also allow for criminal charges to be filed. And if the person is later found guilty of driving under the influence, some states add on additional consequences during sentencing specifically for the refusal to test.

The three cases before the court are challenging the constitutionality of implied consent laws under the argument that they violate suspects’ Fourth Amendment rights against warrantless searches. The North Dakota cases are contesting the imposition of criminal punishments for people who refuse warrantless testing. The Minnesota case is challenging the state’s statute allowing for warrantless testing if police believe there is probable cause that a suspect is driving while intoxicated.

A DUI suspect’s BAC is often the most important evidence presented in a drunk-driving case. Implied consent laws arose because when drivers refuse sobriety tests, the passage of time can jeopardize BAC readings as the body metabolizes the alcohol. Penalties for refusing a test are intended to encourage drivers to submit in order to save time and preserve evidence.

But critics argue that the laws shift the onus of collecting evidence and probable cause from police to suspects. In addition, critics claim the laws place a substantial burden on defendants by requiring them to either provide evidence that aids in their own prosecution or automatically face punishment for not doing so—without due process and before they’ve actually been convicted of a crime.

Revisiting Warrantless Blood Draws

Critics of implied consent laws also argue that police already have an effective legal tool at their disposal to compel suspects to submit to a BAC test: a warrant.

In accepting these new cases the court is expected to clarify its 2013 decision in Missouri v. McNeely, which determined that in most situations police must obtain a warrant before conducting a blood draw on a DUI suspect if the suspect has refused or is unable to cooperate. In that case, the justices found that the body’s metabolism of alcohol does not inherently create exigent circumstances that would allow for a blanket exception to the Fourth Amendment.

The current cases claim that implied consent laws are an end-run around the Fourth Amendment and violate the high court’s intent in Missouri v. McNeely. Multiple state supreme courts have already struck down their states’ implied consent and no refusal laws in the wake of the 2013 ruling.

Furthermore, earlier this year the court refused to hear a Colorado case that would have revisited the Missouri v. McNeely ruling. Based on that decision, some court analysts expect the justices will use the current cases to solidify the requirement for police to obtain a warrant before testing DWI suspects without their consent.

License Suspension vs. Criminal Punishment

While the North Dakota defendants are challenging the criminal judgments related to their testing refusals, in the Minnesota case the court will look at the defendant’s license suspension. Some observers speculate that the court could differentiate between criminal and non-criminal penalties for refusing a sobriety test, leaving some power with the states while setting up clearer guidelines on suspects’ Fourth Amendment rights.

Whatever the outcome, the high court’s decision is expected to have far-reaching implications on implied consent laws and to impact how law enforcement agencies handle DWI stops and evidence collection.

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Alison Betts

Alison Betts

Alison Betts has over 15 years of experience as a communications professional and researcher in corporate, nonprofit, and high education settings. Betts joined AMS in 2013 and is currently a Senior Manager of Marketing & Public Relations. Prior to coming to AMS, she held research and teaching positions at universities in Arizona and Colorado. Betts has also served as a public relations professional and grant writer in the nonprofit sector, where she saw first-hand the devastating impact of alcohol and substance abuse on families and communities. Betts holds an MA in English from the University of Colorado and a Master’s in Applied Communications from the University of Denver.

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