Is a warrantless DUI blood withdrawal unconstitutional?

This article looks at how a recent Supreme Court ruling on blood withdrawals could play out in California.

Privacy rights are often at issues when it comes to determining the constitutionality of certain blood-alcohol content tests, such as breath tests and blood withdrawals. Indeed, privacy rights were at the center of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that could have a major impact on DUI cases throughout the country, including in California. According to USA Today, the country's top court ruled that criminalizing the refusal of a warrantless blood test is unconstitutional, although the criminalization of a breath test refusal is permissible.

Criminalizing refusal

The recent Supreme Court case centers on breath and blood-test refusal laws in North Dakota and Minnesota, laws which are shared by a number of states throughout the country. Those laws made it a criminal offense for people suspected of drunk driving to refuse to submit to a blood or breath test for alcohol, even when police failed to obtain a warrant for such testing.

The court ruled that while there is a public interest in the laws, in some cases criminalizing the refusal of an alcohol test is unconstitutional. Specifically, the court ruled that the nature of a blood withdrawal, because it pierces the skin, is far more invasive than a breath test. As a result, the top court concluded that warrantless blood withdrawals are a violation of the Fourth Amendment, whereas warrantless breath tests are not.

Impact in California

The Supreme Court ruling could impact California in a number of ways. While California's laws differ in important ways from the test-refusal laws of North Dakota and Minnesota, the state nonetheless does have implied consent laws, meaning that the issuance of a driver's license implies consent by drivers to submit to blood and breath tests for alcohol. It remains to be seen how the most recent Supreme Court case will impact California's implied consent laws, although in one DUI manslaughter case the defense has already indicated its intention to use the ruling to challenge the evidence against the accused.

As the Palo Alto Weekly points out, the ruling could also have an effect on how police conduct breath and blood tests in the first place. Police may be far more hesitant, for example, to conduct a blood withdrawal if they are worried about the constitutionality of such a withdrawal. Therefore, some officers may become overly reliant on breath tests and forego getting warrants for a blood withdrawal. However, relying too much on breath tests raises more issues since such tests may be less reliable than blood tests, especially if the breathalyzer has not been properly calibrated.

DUI defense

While being charged with DUI is certainly a frightening experience, there are often ways of challenging the charges or getting them reduced, as the above article suggests. In some cases, for example, questions about the legality of an alcohol test may be at issue. Regardless of the circumstances, anybody who is facing an impaired driving-related charge should contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. An experienced attorney can help the accused understand their rights and make sense of what legal options may be available.