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Supreme Court to hear breath test cases

The Texas implied consent law requires drivers to submit to a toxicology test to determine if they were operating a motor vehicle while impaired only after they have been charged with a crime. However, the laws in some other states give police officers the authority to demand a breath test based purely on their suspicion that a motorist is illegally impaired. These laws are often seen as an important part of a state's efforts to combat drunk driving, but questions have persisted about their constitutionality.

The U.S. Supreme Court has tended to protect the civil rights of motorists when hearing arguments about the legality of warrantless searches of automobiles and their drivers, and it was announced on Dec. 11 that Supreme Court justices will hear arguments in cases involving drivers who faced additional criminal charges for refusing to submit to deep lung breath tests. The cases involve motorists from Minnesota and North Dakota.

Attorneys representing the state of Minnesota say that the drivers concerned were facing drunk driving charges prior to being ordered to submit to a breath test, and they point out that search warrants are obtained before blood or urine tests are performed. While the Minnesota Supreme Court found these arguments persuasive, precedent leads some observers to believe that the nation's highest court could be harder to convince. The court has previously ruled that blood tests require a search warrant and police may only conduct warrantless searches of vehicles in very specific situations.

There are a number of reasons why criminal defense attorneys may advise their clients not to refuse a toxicology test. While the results of these tests may appear to be compelling evidence, they are not always reliable. A defense attorney could challenge the validity of breath, urine or blood tests if they were not performed correctly or the equipment used was inadequately maintained, and certain medical conditions may also lead to misleading results. Attorneys could also point out to their clients that refusing to submit to a toxicology test may also make it more difficult for them to negotiate a plea agreement.

Source: Texas Constitution and Statutes, "Transportation Code Title 7", accessed on Dec. 18, 2015

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