As drivers were warned numerous times over the July 4 holiday weekend, driving drunk not only is dangerous and could kill people, but also brings severe penalties. Just before the holiday, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared up what penalties can be imposed on those suspected of drunk driving.
When someone is pulled over in a vehicle on suspicion of drunk driving, the person automatically faces a suspension of their license if he or she refuses a Breathalyzer, blood or urine test. In California, the person’s refusal, according to Section 23612 of the Vehicle Code, “will result in a fine [and] mandatory imprisonment if the person is convicted of a violation.” The key is there would have to be a court trial for the conviction.
It’s called “implied consent.” That is, when you’re issued a license by the DMV, you consent to follow all California and local driving laws. According to California Vehicle Code Section 23601, a blood-alcohol content of “0.08 percent or more, by weight” means the person is presumed to be “under the influence of an alcoholic beverage at the time of the alleged offense.”
However, some states, including North Dakota and Minnesota, imposed a mandatory conviction even without a trial. The Supreme Court combined three cases in Birchfield v. North Dakota. Plaintiff Danny Birchfield, after being convicted of not consenting to a blood test without a police search warrant, objected that his Fourth Amendment right to protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” was being violated.
The court sided with Birchfield on the blood test question, but held that Breathalyzer tests do not require a search warrant. The case at issue there was Bernard v. Minnesota, in which William Bernard Jr. refused a breath test and automatically was convicted.
As Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court, “Because breath tests are significantly less intrusive than blood tests and in most cases amply serve law enforcement interests, we conclude that a breath test, but not a blood test, may be administered as a search incident to a lawful arrest for drunk driving. As in all cases involving reasonable searches incident to arrest, a warrant is not needed in this situation.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor concurred with the opinion, but partly dissented, writing of the blood-test portion, “This court has never said that mere convenience in gathering evidence justifies an exception to the warrant requirement. I fear that if the court continues down this road, the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement will become nothing more than a suggestion.”
We agree with Sotomayor that it is essential to preserve the protections promised by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Consstitution. For California, current law fortunately does not go as far as the court allowed and should not be changed.
Some states imposed a mandatory conviction even without a trial.
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