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Supreme Court says you can refuse a drunk-driving blood test — but not a breathalyzer

The court ruled that forced breathalyzer tests do not require a warrant, but blood-alcohol tests still do, because taking blood is more intrusive.

by Adam Hamze
Jun 23 2016, 5:50pm

(Andrew Milligan/PA Wire via AP Images)

The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 on Thursday that it's a crime for drivers to refuse breathalyzer tests when they're suspected of drunk driving, but the justices also placed limits on penalties for drivers who refuse to submit blood for alcohol tests.

The ruling decided three cases in Minnesota and North Dakota in which the plaintiffs argued that forced breathalyzer tests are a form of unreasonable search and seizure that violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. The court ruled that forced breathalyzer tests do not require a warrant, but blood-alcohol tests still do, because taking blood is more intrusive.

The court's decision rested on the belief that a breath test does not result in "significant privacy concerns," as Justice Samuel Alito stated in the majority opinion. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg both said they would have required a search warrant for both blood and breath tests. Meanwhile, Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, stating that he believes a warrant shouldn't be required for either.

Most states have laws in place that revoke the licenses of those who refuse alcohol tests, but license revocation is a civil penalty. The justices let stand the states' position that that they are acting constitutionally when they impose criminal penalties — like time in jail — for refusal.

Minnesota and North Dakota are two of a handful of states that impose criminal penalties for refusing to take a breathalyzer test.

Follow Adam Hamze on Twitter: @adamhamz