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Refusing a breath test: Can it result in criminal penalties, the United States Supreme Court will address this question

The United States currently has thirteen states which have criminalized drunk driving test refusal, allowing police officers to arrest and charge individuals for refusing the Breathalyzer or blood test. Unlike these thirteen states, it is not a crime to refuse such tests in Massachusetts. Although there will be a license suspension, drivers in Massachusetts can refuse a breath test without incurring any criminal penalty or adverse inference during an OUI trial; however, the driver will face a license suspension depending on the number of OUI convictions they have in their lifetime.

While the ruling of the United States Supreme Court will not directly impact Massachusetts drivers, it is an important decision for DUI attorneys.  The decision would impact DUI convictions from Rhode Island.  Currently under Rhode Island DUI law, a second offense refusal to submit to a breath test is a criminal offense, even though a first offense refusal is only civil.  This decision would invalidate this provision of Rhode Island law criminalizing a second offense refusal. 

The Cases Under Review

The Supreme Court has agreed to review three drunk driving cases with one concern in common- the defendants’ consequences for refusing a drunk driving measurement. According to Scotus Blog, two of the three cases involve the driver refusing a blood alcohol measurement test- one a blood test, the other a breath test. The third case involves a driver who was charged with drunk driving after refusing to take the field sobriety tests, and was then taken to the hospital for a blood test against his wishes.

The cases, two from North Dakota and one from Minnesota, all concern states with unique legislation that allows them to prosecute individuals for refusing an alcohol test. In North Dakota, punishment for this “crime” is equivalent to that of a OUI/DUI conviction. In Minnesota, it is a crime to refuse a test if the individual has been formerly arrested for drunk driving.

The Law Under Review

In the 2013 ruling of Missouri v. Mcneely, Supreme Court justices affirmed that the natural dissipation of alcohol from the bloodstream does not justify police officers’ conducting alcohol-blood tests without a search warrant. The Court stated that such circumstances during drunk driving stops do not qualify under the exigent circumstances exception to search warrant requirements, and that police officers have ample time to seek a warrant if they wish to administer tests.

The defendants’ defense attorneys have appealed their respective sanctions, stating that the state’s reasoning conflicts with the 2013 Mcneely decision, and the defendants therefore cannot be convicted for refusing the tests.

Depending on the outcome of the Supreme Court review, the defendants’ could be facing conviction equivalent consequences such jail time and/or fines, versus the license suspension they otherwise would have gotten for simply refusing the tests.

The decision could have a nationwide impact on police procedures, potentially allowing police officers to charge drivers just for refusing drunk driving tests. The implications of this review could be profound for individuals’ rights and defense attorneys alike. Not only would it increase the state’s ability to prosecute drivers, but it would tread on the Fourth Amendment rights of individuals to be secure against unreasonable searches, such as the blood or breath test.

For further reading on this issue, Adam Liptak of the New York Times wrote an excellent article on this issue.

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